The West Central Tribune quoted Willmar city council member Ron Christenson speaking at a council committee meeting earlier this year: “I remember the advice: ‘Don’t forget. The City Council can do anything … even if it is illegal.'” That sounds a lot like the response I got from a judge in another Minnesota town back in the day: “I know the law, and I don’t have to follow the law.” Small towns and counties often run on their own rules, set by governing cliques who don’t give a damn about law and individual or minority rights. That alone is a reason for independent oversight over local finances and government — a protection that the Minnesota legislature just eliminated.
Willmar offers one example of the need for independent oversight of local government, with ongoing disputes, a recall campaign, and breakdown of trust in government. Christianson is the leader of a faction that fired a popular city administrator, probably after planning the action in secret meetings that violated state open meeting laws. He got national attention for Willmar by trying to keep people from tweeting or texting about Council meetings. A committee of the Council, led by Christianson, also tried to limit citizen input and public forums. The problems are long-standing: in 2013, a leadership retreat ended with the outside facilitator declaring the city government “irredeemably dysfunctional.”
Other local governments have their own problems, with a few noted here and here and here and here. But those problems are unlikely to get a lot of attention, as local news organizations frequently feel wary of critical coverage of local government. Personal and business relationships between local government officials, businesses and news organizations further complicate matters. Intensive local coverage of local government corruption and shenanigans with government money won a Pulitzer prize for the Daily Breeze in Torrance, California this year, but that’s the exception, not the rule.
Dysfunctional local governments offer pretty good examples of why local government needs outside oversight. Instead, the legislature decided to allow local governments to pick and choose their own auditors, rather than being audited by the constitutionally established and elected state auditor. Here’s the official description of the kinds of oversight that the state auditor provides:
- Audit Practice – conducts financial and legal compliance audits of local governments;
- Government Information – collects and analyzes financial information for cities, towns, counties, and special districts;
- Legal/Special Investigations – provides legal analysis and counsel to the Office and responds to outside inquiries about Minnesota local government law; as well as investigates allegations of misfeasance, malfeasance, and nonfeasance in local government;
- Pension – monitors investment, financial, and actuarial reporting for approximately 700 public pension funds; and
- Tax Increment Financing – promotes compliance and accountability in local governments’ use of tax increment financing through financial and compliance audits.
The state auditor’s oversight of local government is a watchdog function, and local government, like all government, needs watching. But Republicans in the legislature prefer privatization to public oversight. They took away the constitutional state auditor’s oversight authority, instead ordering that local governments can choose their own auditors. Allowing a city council to choose an auditor to report on the city council’s spending is like allowing the fox to choose a watchdog for the hen house. Repealing this law should be a first order of business for the next legislature.