By robert Guttersohn
Treasurers and fiscal officers from local and county government could be forced from office under legislation introduced in the Ohio House.
They also could be blocked from holding future elected positions if theft occurs on their watch.
“When somebody’s got the checkbook with taxpayers’ money in it, they’re armed and dangerous,” said state Auditor Dave Yost. “And it’s important that the people have a way to correct a situation where somebody is misusing that checkbook before another election comes around.”
Currently, the only ways of removing from office elected fiscal officers and treasurers who are found to be mishandling public money are through elections or through a petition, Yost said.
The bill comes in direct response to the theft of nearly $3 million by a deputy treasurer in Stark County and the resulting legal challenges and brouhaha that led to the resignation of Stark County Treasurer Gary Zeigler last October.
The proposed law also addresses some of the issues the Liberty Local School District endured last year before the resignation of its treasurer, Tracey Obermiyer. The district was deemed unauditable last year, and earlier this month, the state auditor announced Obermiyer overpaid herself $4,920 in 2010.
Much of what happened in the Liberty district, and other districts where books are in disarray, is a “shared responsibility” and comes down to oversight, Yost said in a separate interview with The Vindicator.
“You don’t need an accounting degree to be able to review a bank reconciliation,” Yost said, speaking generally and not specifically about Liberty’s school board. “And that’s part of oversight.”
As far as Obermiyer overpaying herself, Yost said there’s no real way a school board can prevent such a thing from happening.
“You can’t stop economic crimes any more than you can stop someone from taking drugs or murdering,” Yost said. “You can make it difficult, and you can make the consequences significant to deter people. But I don’t blame the board — based on what I know — for the double payment.”
The law would make harsher the punishment for school treasurers mishandling school financial records.
State funding to a public school district would be frozen if, after its financial records were deemed unauditable, the district did not make a reasonable effort to bring their records to auditable condition within 45 days.
In that case, the treasurer would be suspended until the audit was complete or the state may revoke the treasurer’s license.
Yost said applying financial pressure to community schools in the past forced them to fix their records. He feels the same can be done for public schools.
“This legislation is really taking that lesson into the public sphere and trying to apply that same tool for places that seem to have the most difficulty,” Yost said
Since taking office in January 2011, state auditors have had 20 audits come up with “significant findings against fiscal officers or treasurers,” he said.
CONTRIBUTOR: Marc Kovac, Columbus correspondent