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GREG HARTON: Trust great in government, but scrutiny is necessary

by Greg Harton | September 20, 2020 at 1:00 a.m.

As Ronald Reagan suggested, "trust but verify" is a vital approach in governmental relations.

For every situation in which people are bilked, trust precedes deception.

One of my first big federal investigations to cover as a reporter in Hot Springs involved an investment broker named Gene Flannes. He disappeared with about $4 million from more than 100 retirees.

For a decade, he'd paid early investors with money he got from new ones. In 1988, the scheme could sustain itself no longer. He evaporated when he couldn't get enough new investors to cover payments to the old ones. He left behind retirees whose financial lives were in tatters.

Trust is at the core of taxpayers' relationship with elected officials. Most voters don't cast ballots for people known to be untrustworthy. Indeed, every elected official is invested with the public trust as a serious responsibility.

Yet there are people like former state Sen. Jon Woods and former state Rep. Micah Neal who accepted bribes to influence where taxpayer dollars were spent.

In Craighead County last week, the now-former elected county clerk agreed to repay about $1.6 million he is accused of stealing from taxpayers. County officials there had to dip into reserves to cover the losses.

Washington County Quorum Court members are beginning the annual process of budgeting millions of dollars to run county government. The most critical task of quorum courts in all 75 counties is to establish budgets by which executive branch elected officials operate. Budgets give spending authority, but just as importantly, set spending limits within a variety of categories.

For reasons of personality and political perspective, Washington County officials have struggled every year to meet their responsibility, in part influenced by a county judge and other full-time executive branch officials who prefer to limit Quorum Court scrutiny of their spending.

Quorum Court member Sam Duncan wants to empower them further: He wants to set aside $1 million for county reserves, grow an "emergency fund" for County Judge Joseph Wood from $75,000 to $500,000, and allocate spending authority to all general fund departments based on percentages of the anticipated remaining revenue. The details of spending should be left up to elected department heads, he suggests.

Unfortunately for taxpayers, that approach avoids any significant level of scrutiny for how money is spent. Should a sheriff's office, for example, be able to budget $50,000 extra to feed inmates but eventually spend that money on new uniforms? I'd suggest the Quorum Court ought to at least be aware of how that money is being spent and have a chance to evaluate whether it's the best use of taxpayer dollars.

Duncan says to trust the full-time elected officials, somehow justifying that by saying "They're elected by more people than we are on the court."

That's hogwash. It's about checks and balances. Trust but verify.

The Quorum Court doesn't need to be antagonistic about double-checking full-time officials' spending plans, but they do need to review budgets and demand changes when the budget doesn't meet their expectations. The Quorum Court shouldn't be willing to shirk its responsibilities just because some full-time elected officials don't want to be bothered with explaining their spending plans.

I'm not saying County Judge Joseph Wood or Sheriff Tim Helder or any of the other full-time elected officials equate to Gene Flannes, who the FBI eventually found and arrested in 1991. What I am saying is the Quorum Court is part of a system of financial oversight designed to protect taxpayers, who have been the victims of plenty of public corruption.

Simply doling out millions of dollars by preset percentages, without closely examining spending, is creating a lot of opportunity for financial shenanigans. Sooner or later, someone will take advantage of that.

Greg Harton is editorial page editor for the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Contact him by email at [email protected] or on Twitter @NWAGreg.


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