In Q&A, state auditor blasts Utah and Uintah commissions over power grabs, calls for reform

John Dougall explains why he finds public spats between elected officials in certain counties concerning.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah State Auditor John Dougall, pictured at the Capitol, Thursday, May 23, 2019. In an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune, John Dougall explained why he finds recent public spats between elected officials in certain counties concerning, and why he thinks taxpayers should be alarmed.

Editor’s note An earlier version of this report appeared in The Salt Lake Tribune without input from Uintah or Utah county officials. This report has been updated to include their comments.

State Auditor John Dougall has “a lack of confidence” in Utah County lawmakers, he told The Salt Lake Tribune on Friday, and he called Uintah County the “epicenter of financial dysfunction.”

The comments came after a number of public clashes between elected officials in those counties this year, following moves to strip budget authority from independently elected county clerks/auditors and shift it to commission oversight instead.

Dougall is tasked with a watchdog role over local governments in the state. In response to all the fray, he is now calling for reforms to a state law that in 2012 allowed county commissions to make such controversial shake-ups. (At a Nov. 17 Political Subdivisions Interim Committee, chair Michael McKell said that state lawmakers intend to draft a bill addressing Dougall’s concerns in the upcoming legislative session.)

Utahns who don’t follow the day-to-day sausage-making of county government might be perplexed about why there’s suddenly so much squabbling, or why it matters. In an interview with The Tribune, Dougall explained why he thinks taxpayers should be alarmed, why his office is trying to promote accountability, and why the responsibility to enact change ultimately lies in the hands of voters.

The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Question: Last month, you and your deputy, Hollie Andrus, spoke to state lawmakers in an interim session about the importance of keeping budget and accounting duties with clerk/auditors separate from county commissions, contrary to what’s happening in Utah and Uintah counties.

Can you highlight some of your concerns?

Dougall: The key thing we were talking about is the importance of separation of duties. There are any number of ways things can be structured, but you want to make sure you separate certain functions: the receiving of money, the accounting of money, the disbursement of money.

When you consolidate that into a single person or group, you increase risk. That can apply to any organization, not just counties, not just governments.

Q: Why are some county commissions moving to make changes to their clerk/auditor offices now, almost a decade after the legislation allowing for it passed in 2012?

Dougall: That bill came about after an issue in Salt Lake County (county officials were in the middle of a lawsuit when the council shifted budget duties to the mayor’s office).

The county auditor at the time was in a fight with the rest of the county and the County Council, in regards to who should set the budget. That’s what led to the legislation.

Q: Uintah County Commissioners point out that you were a state lawmaker in 2012, and voted to approve the legislation at the time.

Dougall: I think we’ve learned since then that we took a step too far. The irony is, issues hadn’t bubbled up until this year. Clearly something has changed in the last two years that has brought this to the forefront in at least two counties.

What you have seen over time is certain county commissions have been frustrated by certain activities in other offices, or they want more control over financial aspects of the county, so they’re taking these [consolidation of powers] measures.

Q: In Utah County, commissioners last week voted 2-1 to split the clerk/auditor’s office, instead of removing the office’s budget duties (which they attempted last spring). What are your thoughts on that?

Dougall: Commissioner Tom Sakievich said he was doing it because of a concern over separation of powers. I find that highly ironic, given the commission several months ago tried to move the accounting functions under the commission. Now they’re highly concerned with separation of powers, when they weren’t concerned in March? I think there’s some other agenda at play other than good governance.

(Commission Chair Bill Lee told The Tribune on Monday that it was necessary to split the offices to meet the demands of a growing county, and that the commission took action last week in order to be prepared for the 2022 elections. He added and that Dougall had not reached out to share any concerns.)

Q: Is that something your office can investigate?

Dougall: I don’t think that’s an audit issue, per se. It’s more a political matter.

Q: Do you have any speculation as to what the political motivations in Utah County may be?

Dougall: I wish I knew. I have a lack of confidence in the current Utah County Commission, as a resident of Utah County.

(Commissioner Amelia Powers Gardner, a former clerk/auditor who cast the only dissenting vote about splitting the office, said she “can’t blame” the state auditor for losing confidence. “There are some things that just happened really quickly and it’s frustrating for me ... I think it’s because [the other commissioners] want complete control of budget process, and financial process.)

Q: What recourse do the residents of Utah County have, if they are concerned?

Dougall: We have an election next year. So there are two options: Vote for other people in office, or vote to change how the government is structured.

Q: In the fall, your office released a scathing audit report on Uintah County. Some residents seemed relieved that the state was looking into the county’s practices.

But months later, commissioners continue to dispute the legality of your audit. They also haven’t restored the clerk/auditor’s budget duties, as recommended, and they continue to claim they did nothing wrong with their handling of pandemic funds.

Does a state audit really carry any teeth?

Dougall: Fundamentally, the important responsibility is with residents of Uintah County. They’re the ones who choose their elected officials. They have a duty to weigh in and drive meaningful change.

In different aspects, there are also ways for the governor to weigh in, in regard to the federal COVID money In certain aspects. The Attorney General’s Office could weigh in. But fundamentally, it’s hard to fix stupid.

(The Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget distributed and accounted for more than $5 million in federal coronavirus assistance to Uintah County. A spokesperson for the office said they were “in communication” with Uintah County over the state auditor’s concerns, and that county officials have been responsive.

The spokesperson also noted that the U.S. Department of Treasury had shared in September “concerns with potential misuse” of funds sent to Uintah County.)

Dougall, continued: For the Uintah County Commission to continue to claim I do not have authority, when the Utah Constitution clearly states that I have the authority to perform financial post audits of public accounts, is irresponsible.

The simple fact is you have a feud going on between the commission and the clerk/auditor, and they both have problems. ... They’re the epicenter of financial dysfunction.

(In an interview Monday, Uintah County Commissioner Bart Haslem said Dougall’s audit “didn’t follow state code,” but noted it did identify issues the county is working to correct. The commissioner also denied the county misused federal pandemic funds.)

Q: You previously told The Tribune that your office decided to investigate Uintah County after receiving multiple whistleblower complaints from residents. Do you continue to get those calls?

Dougall: Yes. I have a call in two minutes from a county resident.

Q: In terms of the reform that your propose, one issue this seems to dredge up is finding the right expertise for a clerk/auditor role, and the complex financial management duties it demands.

A CPA or professional accountant is unlikely to run for office, given the pay cut that usually comes with it. What are your thoughts?

Dougall: It depends on the position and the pay. For example, the Salt Lake County auditor makes more than I make, as a comparison. So in some cases, the compensation is fair or reasonable. Clearly, in other cases, you run the risk of inadequate or insufficient resources to recruit appropriate talent.

You have that same issue, potentially, with a county attorney or other technical position.

Q: I’d imagine it’s even more difficult to recruit talent in rural counties, where budgets are smaller?

Dougall: This is where you get into an issue. But if you have the challenge of finding a qualified county auditor, [how] is your county commission more qualified?

Correction, 4:46 p.m., Dec. 14: This story has been updated to correct the name of the Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget.