County auditors have no right to examine the records of agencies such as animal control, parks and recreation and mental health because they aren't specifically mentioned under state law, an assistant attorney general says.
But auditors, worried that a flap between elected officials in Davis County may affect their jobs, said Thursday the law was written in the 19th century - long before many current county agencies existed - and they are urging state lawmakers to make changes during the next legislative session."We've always told the auditors to look at everything," State Auditor Tom Allen said. "That only makes sense. We elect the auditor to be a watch dog."
But state law requires the county auditors to only examine monthly the books of the county assessor, attorney, treasurer, clerk, recorder, sheriff and surveyor. Those offices were all that existed in counties when Utah became a state in 1896.
Assistant Attorney General Ralph Finlayson issued an informal opinion earlier this week saying the law should be strictly interpreted. Auditors' duties are confined to the offices specifically mentioned.
"These statutory references are so specific that . . . an interpreter is not at liberty to conclude that other officers or entities not mentioned are to be included by implication," Finlayson's opinion said.
The opinion, although not binding, is disconcerting for auditors in the state's 29 counties.
"That (law) will only stand between now and January," Allen said, indicating the Legislature will change the law when it meets early next year. Allen already has met three times with a legislative committee that is likely to write a new law.
Salt Lake County officials said state law also requires auditors to write the yearly budgets for all county agencies.
"Our opinion is if there comes a question (as to the auditor's role) let's take it to the public and see how they feel," said Dave Beck, deputy Salt Lake County auditor. "I think they'll say they're grateful for the watchdog role we have. The public in Utah wants someone to be evaluating county agencies."
Finlayson's opinion was written as the result of an ongoing battle between comissioners and Davis County Auditor Ruth Kennington, who said commissioners have tried to restrict her.
Kennington has issued two news releases accusing the commissioners of meddling in the affairs of her office and undermining her efforts as the public's watchdog over county spending. She said a recent decision to move two employees out of her office was politically motivated to cripple her office and to give commissioners more control.
Commissioners accuse Kennington of being politically motivated.
After reading Finlayson's opinion, Kennington issued a statement saying she is "willing to live with it if the county commissioners are." She supports efforts to change the law, however.
The opinion was not entirely bad news for Kennington. Finlayson agreed with her that Davis County commissioners broke the law recently when they took money from bonds issued for a new hospital and bought land for a fairground and a future county office building without a vote of the public.
They also were wrong in recently awarding a contract for construction of a county jail without going through proper bidding procedures, the opinion said.