Building public trust

With headlines about international espionage, alleged infidelity, phone scams and threats of violence dominating the news these days, Americans must be asking themselves this question: “Who can we trust?”

While the answer to that question is far from simple, one way to help solve the dilemma may be to implement safeguards that reduce the opportunities for others to breach our trust – at least at the local level.

Dawn Lee, the former fiscal officer for both York Township and the York Water Authority, stands accused of stealing nearly $100,000 of taxpayers’ money with the help of others, including her mother. Lee, 47, and her mother Irma Shreffler, 69, both of Powhatan Point, were arraigned last week and pleaded innocent to crimes related to theft in office.

Belmont County Common Pleas Judge John Vavra said Lee is charged with 27 different crimes and, if convicted, faces a maximum of 52 years in prison. She is being held in lieu of $250,000 bond.

Shreffler faces a half-dozen counts and up to 11 years behind bars. Her bond was set at $100,000.

A third person also is accused of participating in these crimes, but that individual is named only in a secret indictment at this point.

The Public Integrity Assurance Team from the Auditor of State’s office discovered the alleged infractions. That team conducted a special investigation in response to accusations including misuse of township credit cards, overpayment of wages, failure to file income tax returns and failure to remit income taxes that were collected from township and water authority employees.

Unfortunately, situations like this occur on a regular basis within small, local governments. We will have to wait and see whether the courts find Lee and Shreffler guilty or innocent, but there is a lesson to be learned simply from the fact that the case arose. That lesson is that local governments need to provide better oversight of public money.

We understand that local elected officials are very busy. They take on tremendous responsibility for the good of their communities, often in addition to their day jobs. But they still are accountable to the voters.

We urge local elected officials throughout Eastern Ohio to take stock of the policies and procedures they adhere to when it comes to allocating taxpayers’ money. More frequent audits or other types of checks and balances may be in order. Better safe than sorry.