The recent revelation of a deeply troubling audit of Apalachicola’s finances, focused on select areas for a three-year period, points to a pattern of laxity and neglect, at the very least, all the way towards possible ethics violations and even criminal misconduct, at the opposite end of the wrongdoing spectrum.
There is no point detailing here the problems outlined in the audit, completed by Ralph Roberson, an experienced certified public accountant whose integrity is unquestioned. The many local citizens who helped fund the effort are to be praised for their help, and the city commission is to be given a thumbs-up for having moved forward with an accounting of key areas of the previous administration.
Citizens can read it for themselves, and see where there appear to be vivid problems, such as an excessive number of city-issued credit cards, poorly documented and seemingly excessive personal charges, less than exacting transfers of enterprise fund monies into the general fund, and unexplained cost overruns.
There are other spots where the problems are less pronounced, or even non-existent. To say it’s a mixed picture would be an understatement; to say it’s a slam dunk that should land someone in Franklin Correctional Institution for 10 to 20 would be an overstatement.
As the audit is combed through, it is important to note Roberson’s work was not as painstaking and thorough as might be wished for, but that is no fault of his own. Cost is a factor when a city and its citizens contract for such services, and there was not, and is not, an unlimited pool of funds to arrive at an exhaustive analysis of all monies.
The question now is how to move forward. This should be done carefully, and with a clear consensus among commissioners. For this audit either to lead to further schisms and finger-pointing within our community, or to a lack of trust in elected officials, would be an unnecessary, uncalled for and unproductive result.
The commissioners, as it appears they intend to do, should advance in three areas, each as important as the next, and each running concurrently.
The mayor and five commissioners, in concert with newly hired city manager Travis Wade, who is fortunately expert in the area of state ethics rules, would be wise to hammer out a clear set of policies and procedures governing the many areas of documentation and accountability cited in the audit as being sorely needed. In addition, this priority should include a commitment to hiring a top-notch city finance officer. We leave it up to the commission to make a wise decision in these regards.
The city should also move ahead, in a transparent way, with referring the matter to the proper county and state law enforcement officials, who are the proper bodies to determine if and what rules were broken, and to recommend what the consequences should be. It is counterproductive to convene a kangaroo court of public opinion in the absence of making an earnest effort to have impartial experts render their views on these serious matters.
The third area, and just as important, is to afford past officials a respectful opportunity to address these findings. Whoever it may be, former Mayor Van Johnson, former City Attorney Pat Floyd, former city administrators, former or current department heads or employees, each one of them is entitled a chance to explain, as the expression goes, “what they were thinking.” To do any less is not in keeping with the fair play and civility each of us would insist upon were we on the receiving end of such an inquiry.
At a time when the limitations of social media often rule the day, especially in this odd period when people spend long hours at home, behind their computers, unable to interact with others in a warm and friendly way, it is even more essential that we limit our conclusion-jumping, and flex our fairness-extending.
These sorts of exercises will help keep our city, and the spirits of its citizens, in tip-top shape.