ELLSWORTH — The Hancock County Commissioners have been side-stepping the will of voters by installing a chief financial officer and limiting the duties and hours of the elected county treasurer, according to the State Auditor’s Office.
“…It appears to us…that the people of Hancock County were treated unfairly because their choice of treasurer was not followed,” State Auditor Pola Buckley said.
Buckley said while investigating the deficit her office discovered the commissioners had been “obstructing” the treasurer.
“It was the will of the people that Janice Eldridge be the treasurer of Hancock County,” Buckley said. “Along with that came a full-time job and full-time pay and full-time benefits.”
“The finding that deals with obstructing the county treasurer, I think, is very, very serious,” Buckley said.
Eldridge said the commissioners had reduced the treasurer’s hours to five hours a week even before she was elected to office the first time, in 2010. She was re-elected to a four-year term in November 2014.
In 2005, Hancock County voters rejected a proposal, by a margin of 2-1, to make the county treasurer an appointed position instead of an elected one, according to Eldridge.
In 2009, the commissioners hired a full-time chief financial officer (CFO), Phil Roy, to oversee the financial management of county funds.
That should not have happened, according to the state.
“The state statutes do not provide for a CFO position within county government,” the auditor stated in the findings.
“Based on the mere five hours per week that the county treasurer’s schedule has been reduced to, and the full-time financial responsibilities assigned to the CFO, the commissioners have obstructed the publicly elected county treasurer from performing the appropriate duties in accordance with state statutes,” the report states.
Hancock County’s response to the state auditor, according to her report, is that the county disagrees that the treasurer has been obstructed from performing her duties.
County Administrator Eugene Conlogue said, “We received the report a little over a week ago. They are going to take it under advisement and review it.”
Commissioner Antonio Blasi said he agreed with the state’s findings.
“The elected treasurer should be keeping the books,” Blasi said. “I totally agree — especially with the 2005 referendum. Just like the report says, you’re ignoring democracy.”
Commission Chairman Percy “Joe” Brown or Commissioner Steve Joy could not be immediately reached for comment.
Eldridge said she was “delighted” with the report.
“Especially the part about my job,” she said. “I have been fighting with them [commissioners] for four and a half years to do what I was elected to do.
“I have been before them time and again in various meetings and I never got anywhere.”
Eldridge said treasurer is “just a word as far as the commissioners are concerned.”
Former Hancock County Sheriff Bill Clark said he saw treasurers come and go over his 34 years in office.
Clark said it wasn’t until the late treasurer Sally Crowley, who had a finance background, was elected that the county modernized its finances.
“We enjoyed Sally. She knew her business; she made finances work for the county,” the former lawman said.
“I know that in years gone by the commissioners have wanted to have a more qualified finance person,” Clark said. “They tried to abolish the position of elected treasurer. The voters didn’t buy that.
“I knew hiring a finance person was going to cause issues because of the statutory role of the treasurer. I don’t know if they got a professional finance person, but they certainly created a position in having one.”
“I have empathy for the commissioners,” Clark said. “I applaud their decision to have better finances.”
The former sheriff noted that there aren’t any qualifications to run for the office of county treasurer while there are for the offices of sheriff and district attorney.
What happens next is not clear.
The state auditor has forwarded its report to the Maine Attorney General’s Office. The AG’s spokesman did not have any information on the case.
Meanwhile, Blasi was recently thwarted in his efforts.
“I attempted to get an agenda item on this [Friday] and it was not granted,” Blasi said. “My request was discontinuance of the CFO position — State Auditor Finding.”
Blasi said the commissioners operate under Robert’s Rules of Order, and thus the chairman decides what will be on the agenda.
In other business, the auditor also found that the county has not followed the state’s budgetary procedures for the unorganized territory tax increment financing funds and community benefit funds.
“Revenue and expenditure accounts were not budgeted for these funds,” the auditor stated
Hancock County receives $200,000 in community benefit funds from expedited permitting of wind energy development and the receipt and disbursement of the funds should be in a public budget process, the auditor stated.
“Budgets and the budget process provide public accountability,” Buckley said.
A copy of the report from the Office of the State Auditor can be found at http://www.maine.gov/audit/reports/2015HancockCounty.pdf.