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Hands off the public’s money

Another case has come to light of a public official who took money from a public fund for his own use. Enough. Hands off the public’s money!

Published: Tuesday, June 4, 2013 1:15 a.m. CDT • Updated: Tuesday, June 4, 2013 4:54 p.m. CDT

All public officials, both elected and appointed, should have a hands-off approach to the public’s money. Their duty is to be good stewards of the public’s cash, not to help themselves to it.

The Sauk Valley has seen too many examples, both spectacularly audacious and mundanely routine, of poor financial stewardship of the public’s money.

In recent months, the former village president of Ashton was investigated for borrowing money from the village’s off-the-books scrap metal fund. John Martinez said he borrowed $160 for personal use with the intention of paying it back (he said he even left an IOU), and later he repaid it.

A grand jury investigation found nothing criminal about the transaction.

Even so, the money in the fund was the public’s. It was generated by the sale of scrap metal that belonged to the village, aka the taxpayers, so the money likewise belonged to the taxpayers.

However Martinez chose to rationalize his behavior, we can’t think of any good reason for an elected or appointed public official to take the public’s money for personal use.

Period.

Public officials receive salaries and are reimbursed for mileage and other expenses as prescribed by governmental units’ rules and regulations.

They are welcome to use that money as they wish.

They are not welcome to devise other ways to help themselves to the public treasury.

Former Dixon Comptroller Rita Crundwell provides the spectacular example of poor financial stewardship. In February, she began serving a nearly 20-year prison term for stealing close to $54 million from the city over two decades.

A Crundwell colleague, former City Engineer Shawn Ortgiesen, used his city-issued credit card for about $13,500 in personal expenses, though he marked the purchases as personal, to be reimbursed. After the city suspended Ortgiesen 2 months ago, he repaid the money and resigned.

In the wake of Northern Illinois University’s “coffee fund scandal” of 2012, the city of Dixon looked into how petty cash was handled. It found that about $600 to $700, spread over various departments, was kept off the books to be used for meal allowances and other petty expenses.

The money, though generated from the sale of salvageable equipment or scrap metal, is still the public’s money. It should be accounted for and monitored.

The city deserves credit for instituting better business practices to do just that.

Other governmental units should examine how they handle the public’s money. Any casual, informal practices that allow the public’s money to be accumulated and spent off budget should end immediately.

Thefts and misuse of the public’s money won’t be so easy if governmental units, large and small, strive for a higher level of professional financial accountability.

Public officials must rededicate themselves to learning and practicing the fundamental principles of financial management.

In other words, do your jobs, and keep your hands off the public’s money!

 

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