How to Audit Nothing

A local news story recently caught my attention, because it contains many lessons for records professionals, auditors, and local government. Last month, the Cincinnati Enquirer reported,

“A tiny river town in Adams County has no mayor, no clerk and, apparently, no financial records. The state auditor’s office has ruled the Village of Rome “unauditable” and is warning that legal action may follow.

In a press release Monday, the Ohio Auditor of State reported that during its audit of the village, which is scheduled to take place every two years, no financial records were provided.”

The entire story is worth reading. In addition to the lack of records, it seems that the Village of Rome lacks clear elected leadership, and that no one ran for mayor, clerk, or council during the last election.

This got me thinking – is this a recurring issue in very small jurisdictions? The Village of Rome only had 94 citizens at the time of the 2010 Census. While I don’t know much about the demographics of Rome, it does seem like it would be difficult to find and recruit enough elected representatives from a body of fewer than 100. From a quick web search, this seems like it’s an issue all over the United States. Jacksonburg, Ohio (population: 64) has gone at least 10 years without anyone filing for the top offices (in which case a write-in wins, or someone must be appointed). In Minnesota, 2/3 of local offices either have 0 or 1 candidate running, and over 30 cities have no one running for mayor. Sometimes there is little documented guidance about what to do if you want to retire and no one else files to run for your spot.

A common theme through many of these articles is that running for elected office in small jurisdictions is a thankless job: little compensation, or recognition, but still a significant amount of work. And since many rural residents now commute long distances to larger urban areas, there is a small pool of people potentially willing to run for elected office.

So what are the records management implications? Obviously even the smallest community is not an island unto itself, and typically is part of a larger governance relationship. It may be required to submit records to the county or state on a regular basis. And as we see from the Village of Rome, officials with records responsibilities are the key ingredient to not only creating and maintaining records, but performing their own act of archival transparency and authenticity by existing in the first place to turn over records to auditors. No people means no records.

Perhaps the best summary of this mess comes from the press release from the Ohio Auditor of State:

“It’s tough to start an audit when you can’t even find the people in charge,” Auditor Yost said, “but it’s even harder when they don’t provide any records.”

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