A recent state auditor’s report calling Hancock County Commissioners to task for their handling of county finances contains shocking assertions. It suggests that the commissioners deliberately have been working to drain away all power and authority from the elected county treasurer position and install that instead in the office of a paid bureaucrat – the chief financial officer. Rather than being responsible to the electorate, the CFO answers only to the commissioners.
Although the county treasurer should be a full-time job with full-time pay and benefits, current treasurer Janice Eldridge has had her hours and responsibilities cut to only about five hours per week.
“… 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 in her report.
“The finding that deals with obstructing the county treasurer, I think, is very, very serious,” she said.
What makes the gradual marginalizing of the treasurer even more disturbing is that voters in 2005 rejected by a wide margin a move to make the position appointed rather than elected.
Commissioners hired the full time CFO in 2009. Proponents of the move argued that an elected treasurer does not have to have any formal accounting training. The move was taken, ostensibly, to increase the degree of professionalism in the office. That, however, could have been done by tightening the minimum qualifications of who could run, rather than slowly eliminating the position.
Currently, other elected officials, such as sheriffs, have to meet minimum training and background standards. There’s no reason that could not be instituted for treasurers as well.
Coupled with revelations last year that the county had been extraordinarily generous in allowing the current holder of the CFO position to work from home, this marginalization of the treasurer has resulted in the serious disenfranchisement of the residents of Hancock County. The duties of their duly elected treasurer have been usurped.
With few residents paying any attention to what commissioners do on a regular basis, it is easy to see how officials in such positions could misinterpret that as carte blanche to do as they deem appropriate. But the strident statements in the state auditor’s report clearly suggest that they have gone too far.