SYRACUSE — Mayor Jamie Nagle is accusing the state auditor of unfairly using past accounting problems in Syracuse as "political fodder" in his bid for re-election.
Nagle said she believes an investigation into the city's spending by the Utah State Auditor's Office was made public this week to bolster longtime Auditor Auston Johnson's chances of defeating challenger John Dougall in next month's Republican primary.
"It looks all the world like an election issue," she said.
According to the investigation, more than $77,000 in road repairs were approved by city officials and paid for with taxpayer money without going through the proper bidding process. The auditor's office also reported that Syracuse improperly spent $156,000 in class C road funds to pay for administrative costs, parking lots and paint for fire hydrants.
But the issues identified in the report were discovered by Syracuse city officials in 2010 and since have been corrected, Nagle said.
"I'm so irritated," the mayor said Tuesday after the auditor's findings were released. "We're trying so hard to do things on the up and up, and then to just be thrown under a political bus is just wrong."
Nagle said she contacted the auditor's office Tuesday to ask why the findings were being made public now when the audit itself states the issues have been corrected. She said she called out Deputy State Auditor Joe Christensen for pulling Syracuse into the auditor's race.
"I said, 'You're trying to use Syracuse in the election,' and he acknowledged that," Nagle said. "He said, 'Well, there have been allegations by John Dougall that we're not doing enough, so we've chosen to publish this audit finding.'"
Christensen on Wednesday called Nagle's account of the conversation "a misrepresentation of what I said," and he pointed the finger back at Syracuse's mayor, saying she's "trying to deflect the issue."
"It's not a political issue," he said. "What it appears to me is you've got a mayor who is kind of on a hot seat because they've been doing some things that weren't quite right, and they're trying to find some other thing to blame instead of standing up to the issue."
Dougall pounced on the opportunity to question Johnson's handling of the matter, saying "it's unfortunate if the auditor's office is politicizing something like that." He also criticized the office for spending roughly two months to point out problems that already had been corrected.
"It's interesting that here we are a year and a half, two years later, and (Johnson) is issuing a press release to draw attention to something that's long since been fixed," the 10-year state legislator said.
Messages left for Johnson on Wednesday were not returned.
The audit was triggered by a call from a Syracuse resident who alleged the city was misusing the class C road funds cities receive from the state for construction and maintenance of city roads.
Some media outlets reported on the investigation when it began, Christensen said, "and we felt like when it was completed, it should be reported to the public as well."
He said the state auditor's office in recent months has been "more aggressive" in making the media aware of its findings and will continue to do so.
"But it has nothing to do with John Dougall," Christensen said.
The reason for the change, he said, stems from legislative audits of the Department of Alcohol Beverage Control last year that found the agency was fraught with mismanagement.
The state auditor's office identified problems in 1995, 1999 and 2002, but nothing was done until Legislative auditors made their report to lawmakers in October 2011.
The auditor's office was criticized for not doing more to make Legislators aware of the ongoing problems, Christensen said.
Because of that, "we have chosen to try to be more proactive in our communication with the Legislature and with the media," he said. "We are going to issue more press releases for anything we think may be of interest."
So far this year, the state auditor's office has issued the findings of 15 audits and investigations. Of those, 10 have been completed since the April 21 GOP convention, when Johnson and Dougall advanced to a primary.
Dougall calls the state auditor's office recent decision to draw more attention to its audits "interesting."
"You've seen a lot more action from the state auditor's office in the last couple weeks, issuing press releases, trying to politicize what they're doing," he said.
But issuing press releases, Dougall said, "doesn't serve the purpose of an audit."
"The purpose of an audit is to work with an agency, help identify the weakness they have, the deficiencies, so they can fix it," he said. "If they fix it promptly, then you can move forward because they corrected it."
In the case of Syracuse, the city's responses to each of the auditor's findings and recommendations included information about what the city had done to correct the problem.
"That's what is unfortunate about this audit report," Mayor Nagle said. "We corrected those (issues)."
Christensen said the audit served its purpose of answering residents' concerns and making sure any misuse of funds was identified and corrected.
"(Syracuse city officials) indicated they had taken appropriate action to resolve the problems, and that's what we want," he said. "That's the whole objective of us doing an audit."
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