Citizens becoming more involved in oversight of town, city finances

Posted Dec. 14, 2011, at 5:13 a.m.

The high visibility of embezzlement cases in some Maine communities has made residents in many cities and towns more skeptical, even suspicious, of what goes on in their hometowns.

Officials are seeing those feelings show up in a dramatic increase in residents’ requests — sometimes demanding and on short notice — to know how their tax dollars are being spent.

The Maine Municipal Association has reported that as many as 20 communities have struggled to keep up with waves of citizen requests made under the state’s Freedom of Access Act, according to the Bangor Daily News.

MMA spokesman Eric Conrad noted in the article that the current load of requests has stressed and distracted town officials who already are busy. And the suspicion that has accompanied some demands has affected morale in town offices.

The MMA has expressed its dismay at a proposed bill that could change state law to make requests for information even easier to make, by allowing people to make these requests by telephone and by requiring town workers to provide an immediate response. The bill would also provide money for a part-time public information ombudsman in the attorney general’s office. The proposal was held over from the last legislative session to allow more study.

The growing call for information has, however, resulted in pushing more towns toward better and wider use of the Internet. Towns are now scanning more paper documents to make them accessible online.

Online use also has grown at the state level, where at least a couple of agencies not only have made reports and other information available on their websites, they have established hot lines so that people with knowledge of illegal acts can report them.

In the state auditor’s office, reports of possible criminal acts by officials can be made in confidence, while the state Department of Health and Human Services takes reports of fraud primarily about those who receive benefits.

In both cases, the reports must be about misuse of state funds, not local budgets. Reports received by both agencies must be accompanied by detailed information and cannot be made anonymously.

The auditor’s fraud hotline, maine.gov/audit/fraud/fraud.htm, launched in 2008, has seen a steady growth in the number of complaints lodged. In its first six months, it saw five complaints; in 2009, there were 24; last year, a total of 29, and in the first six months of 2011 there were 20.

“This department investigates state government, not municipalities,” said state auditor Neria Douglass, acknowledging that, while she has the authority to look at any town or city’s books, she does not have an investigative unit. She said she refers information received on her website to other, more appropriate agencies — other state agencies, or district attorneys’ offices — for follow-up. Her small office staff does not have anyone designated to receive complaints by telephone.

She said she was pleased with the response to the hot line, although it is still something of a work in progress. Some residents still see it as a place to make personal complaints against local officials.

To report fraud, abuse, or other improper or illegal acts to the state auditor, use the online complaint form or:

Email: fraud.audit@maine.gov

U.S. Mail: Maine State Auditor, 66 State House Station,

Augusta, ME 04333-0066

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