Mayor responds to critics

Published 12:00 am Thursday, June 17, 2004

To the editor:

The state law requires the mayor to select the auditor and cause the audit to take place. This is the mayor’s responsibility because the city council controls all other aspects of city finance. By law, the city council approves all budgets and approves all changes to the budget. By law, the city council approves all contracts. By law, the city council decides what property the city will purchase or sell; and they decide what goes on and what is done with city property. Finally, unlike all other cities the size of Selma and larger, the Selma City Council decides who manages city finances.

As mayor, the only city finances I spend are those in the mayor’s office budget appropriation and the mayor’s discretionary. My name is not on any bank account and I do not sign checks. Generally, mayors do not touch the money.

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Day to day financial transactions are performed within the finance department. These transactions are executed based upon budget appropriations and contract agreements that are approved by the city council. The head of the finance department approves all financial transactions performed by the staff in the finance department.

The audit in question is for the period October 2002 through September 2003. The audit report is delayed and as mayor, this concerns me deeply because I need the audit to determine how the spending decisions of the city council have impacted the city. For me to conspire to delay an audit would be like me conspiring against myself.

The prior year’s audit was completed mid-January 2003. There are several reasons for this audit report being delayed.

During the year in question, the city had four different people to serve as department head in finance. Those people were Bob Sanders, Jackie Smith, Vickie Locke, and Cynthia Mitchell. Mr. Bob Sanders was placed on administrative leave on October 2, 2002, the second business day in the fiscal year. When Mr. Sanders left, Mrs. Smith was appointed interim finance director on October 28, 2002 and served in that position until she left the first week in January 2003. She officially retired on January 31, 2003.

From the first of January 2003 until the end of March 2003, the city council would not interview and appoint a department head in the finance department. I went before the city council and pleaded with them to start the interview process and to make an appointment. They refused. We were forced to shift the responsibilities of existing personnel and try to hold things together without a senior finance manager. The staff did the best they could under some very difficult conditions. But by then, the situation had gone from bad to critical.

On March 17, 2003, the city council appointed Mrs. Vickie Locke. During the interview process, in closed meetings, I recommended that Mrs. Locke not be appointed. The majority of the city council chose to ignore my recommendation and appointed Mrs. Locke. After five months on the job, Mrs. Locke was not reappointed by the city council. I agreed with the decision of the city council to not reappoint Ms. Locke.

On the same day, I assigned Ms. Cynthia Mitchell the responsibilites of acting treasurer. Her resume was strong. Her references checked out and she interviewed well. This was 35 days before the end of the fiscal year.

The fact is, the appointment process broke down completely and because of unstable leadership in the Finance Department the financial management was poor for the period in question. When the auditors cam in to perform the audit, instead of starting the audit, they had to help Ms. Mitchell clean up a lot of errors in the records that can be directly attributed to instability in the financial management. That was a very time consuming process.

I recommended to the city council that the city should enter a technical assistance contract with Borland Benefield, the CPA firm that had performed the audit for the prior three years. This recommendation was made because they have knowledge and experience with our financial records. The city council agreed with my recommendation and approve the contract. Thus, Borland Benefield provided technical assistance to the newly appointed, Treasurer, Ms. Cynthia Mitchell.

Because Borland Benefield provided technical assistance and helped the city correct and complete the financial transactions for the period scheduled to be audited, legally they could not perform the actual audit. It was at that point that I decided to appoint Caston Long and Company to take the lead on the audit. That decision was made because Mr. Long had served as a subcontract auditor on the Borland Benefield audit team for the prior three audits. He has both knowledge of our situation and experience with our financial records. It became a simple process of making him the lead auditor. I made that decision.

The primary reason for the long delay in completing the audit is poor management of the appointment process that is completely controlled by the same city council that is blaming staff, auditors, and mayor for their own failures. As previously stated, this city council decides who manages the city’s finances.

Another factor contributed to the delay and that is the new rules and guidelines under GASB Rule 34. It is true that the city knew about these guidelines and that we should have prepared to comply with them. Know that everyone appointed to lead the finance department over the period in question was given these requirements as a specific assignment. In fact, a briefing by the CPA firm was scheduled with each when they were hired in.

Finally, I wrote the initial letter requesting the State of Alabama Public Examiners audit the financial records of the City of Selma. And recently, I directed Ms. Mitchell to call the Public Examiners to, once again, urge them to come and review the city’s finances. This is further proof that I have nothing to hide and I have and continue to encourage State involvement.

James Perkins, Jr.