Friday, November 30, 2012

Bad bean counting and bad judgments

Blaine County Prosecutor Jim Thomas drained the swamp in the city of Sun Valley this week when he released his decision not to prosecute city employees for any wrongdoing. He found no alligators to pursue, just plenty of muck.

The city has been mired in rumor and speculation for nearly a year since it terminated an employment contract with its administrator, put the fire chief and two of his employees—his wife and son—on paid leave after other city employees reported alleged financial irregularities, and authorized a forensic audit of operations.

Thomas released the findings of the audit and the findings of an investigation by the office of the Idaho Attorney General. Along with Thomas’s decision letter, the documents are posted on this newspaper’s website,, under a button labeled “Extras.”

Thomas did his duty as a public servant in releasing the public documents, which the city of Sun Valley had refused to do because of concerns for employee privacy. However, given that the city has spent nearly a half million dollars to date excavating layers of business in City Hall, it was imperative that citizens see the results in order to try to understand what happened and what they had paid for.

What investigators found is simple: bad bean counting, shoddy record keeping and bad judgment.

They found no acts that qualified for criminal prosecution. They found relatively small financial discrepancies that, if continued, would eventually have added up to real money. They found a city that operated without proper financial controls. They found former Mayor Wayne Willich, who was defeated in last year’s election, willing to make it up as he went instead of cleaving to city policies. They found a city council that trusted the administration and that authorized payment of the bills.

The investigative reports also demonstrate the problems that may ensue when members of a single family are employed in the same city department as three were in the Fire Department.

Did the city’s problems justify the costs of the investigation? Did Mayor Dewayne Briscoe and the City Council use a sledgehammer to kill a fly when a cheap flyswatter would have done the job with less mess? What about the collateral damage in terms of lost jobs, disrupted lives, tarnished reputations and the shift of public funds from pressing projects like marketing and road repair? What about the unquantifiable damage to the public trust?

This was not a happy chapter in the history of the city of Sun Valley. The city not only needs to clean up its act, it needs to make it nearly spotless. Then maybe it can get out of the swamp-draining business and back to the public’s business.


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