An Isanti County Commissioner’s interview with a Twin Cities television station has led to a public reprimand.
During the Aug. 1 Isanti County Board meeting, the board approved a motion to censure Commissioner Alan Duff for giving what they describe as “false and misleading” statements regarding the county’s 2011 audit during an interview with KSTP that aired July 30.
Censuring is an official reprimand of a legislative body showing its disapproval of the conduct of one of its members. The motion passed 4 to 1, with Commissioner Duff voting against.
According to the story that aired on KSTP, Duff “questions the amount of per diems—reimbursements to county commissioners for attending meetings in the county and outside the county.”
At the Aug. 1 County Board meeting, Duff said KSTP reporters had asked him to discuss the state auditor’s report and took his story out of context.
“I am deeply concerned about the findings of the state auditor’s report,” Duff said. “I think we need to make efforts to increase our transparency with the taxpayers of Isanti County.”
He said he accepted the offer from KSTP for an interview to “speak on the steps necessary for correcting the deficiencies in our report. If I would have known that this journalist wanted to turn this financial audit story into political mudslinging, I would never, ever have agreed to speak.”
However, Commissioner Susan Morris said none of the other commissioners received a call from KSTP for an interview. Duff is up for re-election this fall, while Morris is not; she said she believes he used this to help him get re-elected this fall.
“[You have] tried to make us look like we’re not doing our job and that we are less than professional,” Morris said. “For you to try to hide behind that statement, shame on you. I would just say that you’re not being transparent; you’re using this whole thing to help you get re-elected this fall. And to that, for the questions that were peppered at me up in a hallway, everything [KSTP] had, you had personally given to them. And it was all out of context—it had nothing to do with our state audit.”
Because of the cutbacks the Board has made in Isanti County and the stress from the overturning of personnel, Morris said, mistakes have been made. The county has gone from having a mandatory 25 percent of all state and federal cases that go through Family Services reviewed by the state auditor to 50 percent.
“That’s the real story of the audit, and all the other stuff that was cited, the state auditor will tell you that all of it is typical for small counties,” Morris said. “And so for you to sit there and say that you’re deeply concerned and you’re all about transparency—the real transparency here, Mr. Duff, is that you’re using this to get re-elected, and shame on you.”
Duff said the message from KSTP specifically stated they wanted to talk about the financial audit and that they wanted to talk to all five commissioners.
“It’s what you said to Channel 5 that bothers me,” Larson said. “You kind of made it look like we weren’t trying to be transparent to the public and not let them know exactly what’s happening. So whether they contacted you by yourself or all of us doesn’t matter; you’re the one who made the comments.”
Larson explained the reason for the action to censure Commissioner Duff is because of “false and misleading statements to the media casting suspicion of wrongdoing on the Isanti County Board of Commissioners and its individual members.”
Finance director clarifies 2011 audit report
After misunderstandings arose of the county’s 2011 audit report from the July 18 meeting, the board requested Isanti County Finance Director Chad Struss to clarify some of the findings during the Aug. 1 meeting.
“I think there’s been a lot of miscommunication and misrepresentation over what those actual audit findings were, and I kind of wanted to put them into some context for the board, and also the public.”
• Segregation of duties:
According to the audit report, several of the county’s departments that collect fees lack proper segregation of duties. Offices in the county that do not have sufficient segregation of duties include highway, sheriff and public health. These departments generally have one staff person who is responsible for billing, collecting, recording and depositing receipts, as well as reconciling bank accounts.
Struss said this is “very common” and “this is not unusual in operations the size of Isanti County and just something we should be aware of.”
Because of the nature of government and the size of the county, not enough people can necessarily be hired to completely segregate duties as they should be, Struss explained.
“Our responsibility is management,” he said. “We continue to try and do that, and it’s one of those comments that in time hopefully will get resolved, but it’s very common.”
• Monitoring internal controls/accounting policies and procedures:
The auditor’s report also noted that an inquiry of county management found that significant internal controls of its accounting system have not been documented, and the county lacks written policies and procedures, including risk assessment and monitoring procedures.
The county has begun to develop formal policies that will include these procedures, but due to limited time and resources, the county hasn’t been able to complete the project.
“I know if you look back to last year or the year before, that comment included additional departments, so the fact that those departments aren’t included now to me says that we’ve addressed those issues in those departments,” Struss said, referring to new procedures that have been implemented by the sheriff’s departments and other departments.
A group of volunteers from various departments are working with Struss to help draft policies and procedures, he explained.
“I think that will hopefully address this comment by the time the auditors come back next winter,” he said.
• Eligibility testing issues in the medical assistance program:
Struss explained that Social Services Director Penny Messer discussed this with the state auditors and they have a corrective action plan in place.
“Those were really the only significant findings,” he said, explaining that none of the findings were considered a “material weakness,” the most severe level.
The auditor’s report also included oral findings, which are not severe enough to be included in the official report but are put into writing as points of discussion for the county to keep track of, Struss explained.
One of those points included a sample of expense reimbursements, credit card transactions and Wright Express, the county’s fuel card program used by employees to purchase gas for county vehicles.
“There were some concerns, some oversight-type things,” Struss said. “One thing I’d really like to note, though, [is that] the auditor didn’t have any evidence or suggestion of abuse or intentional wrongdoing by employees in using these cards.”
He also explained that the auditors recommended implementing a policy stating county employees must turn in expense reports once every 30 or 60 days because of some concern of reports turned in annually.
Struss summarized that the findings in Isanti County’s 2011 audit report were common for a county of its size.
New cases of whooping cough reported
There have been six new reported cases of whooping cough in Isanti County, bringing the total to 21 cases since May, according to the Board of Health.
“We’re particularly concerned about infants that get it, because it can be life-threatening to infants,” Public Health Director Kathy Minkler said. “Nobody was hospitalized. Everybody and their families are being treated for this right now.”
Public Health encourages everyone to get a TDAP shot, a vaccine to prevent tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis. Minkler said some clinics in the area are offering the vaccine.
In other action, the board:
• Awarded the bid of $2,700 from D&J Masonry for Springvale Shelter stonework and awarded the bid of $56,185 from Knife River Corporation for a Springvale paved trail. The funding for these projects will come from Isanti County Parks and Recreation’s Special Projects budget and will be reimbursed up to 89 percent of total cost through the Legacy Parks Grant Award.
• Approved the request by the Parks Department to apply for a Park Legacy Grant to further develop Irving & John Anderson County Park. Development would include gravel trails, parking lot, no mow grass field, horse trails, observation platform, electricity and water. The total estimated cost is $100,000 with a 5 percent local match.
• Approved the request by the Parks Department to apply for a Park Legacy Grant to further develop Becklin Homestead County Park. Development would include gravel trails, parking lot, electricity, fishing blocks and four boardwalks. The total estimated cost is $80,000 with a 5 percent local match.