County again loses in bid to stop state performance audit

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County again loses in bid to stop state performance audit

Fri, 02/14/2020 - 10:34
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■ AUDIT STARTED DEC. ’18 ■ LAWSUIT FILED JAN. ’19 ■ AUDITOR WINS IN COURT

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JEFFERSON CITY – The legal system delivered another blow to Clay County Commissioners Owen Owen and Luann Ridgeway.

But the latest court loss may not stop their effort to block Missouri Auditor Nicole Galloway’s performance audit of the county.

“I’m pretty sure there’s going to be another move to launch an appeal on this thing,” Presiding Commissioner Jerry Nolte said Wednesday.

Nolte said he wants to release the information Galloway seeks to complete the audit. Owen and Ridgeway are a 2-1 vote against him.

Nolte estimated the cost of fighting the audit – with Owen and Ridgeway having lost every court skirmish to date – at “likely hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

“The bills keep coming in,” he said. “That means more billable hours (for lawyers), more money flowing out of the treasury that could be used ... for law enforcement, for roads and bridges; all of the things that people expect.”

The latest effort to block the public’s audit demand failed when the court shrugged off a county suggestion that the court might wish to amend the October ruling.

Unlike a financial audit to assure numbers add up, a performance audit determines whether commissioners have acted in accordance with state laws. State auditors have done performance audits regularly on governmental entities across Missouri.

“Yesterday (Feb. 10) was the deadline for a judge to rule on a request by Clay County to amend an October judgment that unequivocally confirmed the auditor’s legal authority to conduct performance audits,” Galloway’s office stated. The office further stated, “We will continue our audit work and get the answers these taxpayers deserve.”

Reaching out to Owen and Ridgeway for comment Tuesday, Ridgeway responded at 1:13 p.m. Wednesday that responses to questions for commissioners would come from a county spokeswoman, Nicole Brown. At 1:29 p.m., the newspaper sent questions to Brown, with a 3 p.m. deadline. She responded at 1:39 p.m.: “A 90 minute window on a county holiday is not a reasonable request. The county is closed today. 90 minutes will not be a reasonable window of time for a thoughtful response even on a normal business day. Hopefully you can provide a more reasonable window of time in the future so all sides can be heard. This is disappointing.”

Galloway’s office, being open Wednesday, stated the performance audit is ongoing, as provided by law.

Nolte said voters are fed up with audit roadblocks.

“Voters are indignant,” he said, adding. “The people called for (the audit) through the petition process.”

Nolte said court challenges could drag into the August primary, where Owen and Ridgeway could face opposition. He said that, a year ago, he would have doubted the matter would have gone on for so long.

“Which I think is an appalling situation,” Nolte said.

If either Owen or Ridgeway lose in the primary or in the November general election, then their replacements may join him in voting to end the blockade, he said.

“It feels a bit like Groundhog’s Day here,” Nolte said, with regards to the county going to court and losing audit-stifling lawsuits over and over. “It’s just so inappropriate. ... We need to get this audit done. People are sick to death of waiting.”

After receiving a petition signed by more than 5,500 Clay County registered voters, Galloway undertook the audit in December 2018. In January 2019, Owen and Ridgeway agreed to sue to prevent Galloway’s work. The Oct. 24 court ruling confirmed her office can conduct performance audits and dismissed the suit. The court this week ignored the county’s suggestion that the court might wish to amend the ruling.