Davis County commissioners say that County Auditor Ruth Kennington is not doing her job and refuses to learn the duties of her office.
Kennington says it's a case of commissioners wanting "a good little girl" in the auditor's office and she refuses to play the game.The difference of opinion is wreaking havoc in Davis County. State Auditor Tom Allen, who has tried to play peacemaker, said he believes a personality conflict exists that won't be resolved soon. Allen said it may take a clarification by the Legislature or a clear-cut opinion by the Utah attorney general's office to solve the problem.
She maintains that her office has a legal mandate to scrutinze county spending and raise red flags when there are questions about monetary matters.
To solidify her position, Kennington asked the county attorney's office to issue an opinion on her legal responsibilities.
The commissioners say that from the start, Kennington has refused to learn her job and has been a disruptive element in what they call the "most efficient" county government operation in the nation. They say efforts to work with Kennington have failed because she will not accept the legal opinions issued by the county attorney and continues to challenge their authority.
County Attorney Melvin C. Wilson agreed, saying that Kennington has repeatedly requested the same legal opinion and has not been willing to accept his office's response. He said his office is working on a comprehensive memorandum that he will submit to the attorney general for review, comment and, possibly, a resolution of the impasse.
"We hope this memorandum will provide the clarification needed on the matter to get it resolved," Wilson said.
Kennington has issued two news releases recently 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.
The commisioners say if there is political motivation involved, it is on the part of Kennington. They claim she is actively working against the re-election of Commission Chairman Harold J. Tippetts and Commissioner Glen E. Saunders, who has decided to seek the remaining two years of the clerk's office.
The commissioners said the timing of Kennington's first news release, just two days before the county Republican Party convention, was intended to hurt their re-election bids.
While both got more than 50 percent of the delegate vote, neither was able to eliminate intra-party challenges and both will face primary tests in September.
Kennington, also a Republican, has been somewhat on the outside since her election two years ago. She defeated incumbent Ludeen Gibbons in a convention challenge and then breezed through the November election. Her defeat of the popular Gibbons was seen by some as a challenge to party leadership.
Wilson said he believes the action taken by the commissioners is legal and in fact "the proper decision and one that should have been taken long ago." The moves appear to put Davis in step with other counties in Utah. he said.
Moves include the transfers of LaMar Holt, a certified public accountant, and Shirley Hansen, a deputy auditor, from the auditor's office to the county's administrative services department, Wilson said.
Along with the personnel move, several duties were also transferred, most notably purchasing responsibilities. Commissioners say that Holt will also continue to oversee general accounting activities of the other departments and will also be used as a financial analyst for long-range planning purposes.
Tippetts said Kennington's office has not been hurt because no additional work load has been placed on the auditor as a result of the move. He said the auditor still has ample staffing to perform her statutory duties as the county's budget officer and to perform audits of the various departments. Holt continues to do the job he was doing while a deputy auditor and therefore the workload in the auditor's office has been reduced, he said.
The transfer was essentially made official at Monday's commission meeting when the auditor's budget was reduced by $49,181 to cover Holt's and Hansen's salary and benefits for the remainder of the year and by $2,300 in the operations category.
Ironically, the meeting also contained a budget-opening consideration for the Health Department, the library system and for a capital-improvements expenditure. Asked to comment on the items, Kennington said she was not familiar with the items and Holt was summoned to the meeting to explain the budget revisions.
Kennington then submitted a document she said shows the impact Holt's transfer would have on her department and asked the commissioners to reconsider their action. The commissioners said they will study the document but indicated they will likely leave the matter unchanged.
Wilson said he believes the problem is largely a matter of perception and that Kennington refuses to recognize that all county elected officials are under the jurisdiction of the commissioners.
He said county government is a creation of the Legislature and statutes governing county government clearly give commissioners total jurisdiction over the other officials, except in the case of felony prosecutions conducted on behalf of the state.
Short of a action by the Legislature, there is no way for Kennington to challenge that authority.
Allen agreed and said he has told Kennington the commission has ultimate authority over county government functions.
Allen said he sees no real negative effects from the impasse at this point beyond a few "inefficiencies" that will be promoted by the conflict. No fiscal effects should be created by the difference and his review of county financial statements shows no irregularities or items of concern at this time, he said.
Both Wilson and Allen said the conflict strengthens the argument of those who say it may be time for the Legislature to review the need for many of the current elective county offices. Allen said it may also be time to enact legislation to make many of the current posts appointive and based on professional qualifications rather than dependent upon the current political process.