There has always been a fractious relationship between the press and public officials. From small-town mayors to presidents, the problem with newspapers is, reporters quote the statements politicians make, and then they don't go away. The words linger on the record for, well, forever.
In the case of Watertown Supervisor Joel Bartlett, that unfortunate reality is about to come into focus. The town's chief elected official was castigated in a state audit report released this week that sharply criticized the town's financial relationship with it's private, nonprofit ambulance corporation, saying, in effect, that for years the town has violated the state Constitution in the manner in which it has provided funds for the company.
Mr. Bartlett has defended the town's actions as a reasonable expense for public safety. But, in 2007 when the ambulance squad split from the town fire department, the town approved $100,000 for the new nonprofit company but the supervisor, saying the money may well not be spent because a contract with Guilfoyle Ambulance Service would be much cheaper, was quoted in the Times as saying "How do you spend $100,000 a year versus $15,000?", the amount the town would pay Guilfoyle under contract. Before that, he said to a Times reporter, explaining the decision to give the squad $50,000, "It's nowhere near the amount they wanted, but we're not in a position to give $100,000 a year."
In 2010, the town allocated $140,000 to the squad in its budget. In the 2011 budget, that increased to $150,000. Over the past four years, the town has provided the nonprofit corporation with at least $282,000 – and perhaps more. At least some of that was without a valid contract, according to the comptroller's report. But according to Mr. Bartlett's statement in 2007, ambulance service was available to the town at a vastly lower cost. If his $15,000 figure was accurate, over the past four years the town might have had ambulance service provided for somewhere between $60,000 and $75,000.
The ambulance issue is only one of many where Mr. Bartlett and his merry band on the Town Council have run roughshod over legal operating procedures. The audit notes the town allowed its water districts to run more than $600,000 in the red over a period of years, and then paid for it out of the town's rich unexpended fund balance. That means that many, many taxpayers who don't have the benefit of municipal water paid for the ridiculously low rates those in the water districts were paying for the valuable service. Since one of the town's water districts predominantly serves businesses, this turns into a subsidy for business owners on outer Washington Street that is paid by town taxpayers everywhere.
And Mr. Bartlett makes sure that nobody knows the fiscal finagling that is going on by storing public town financial records at the town's accounting firm. That kept them out of sight of the public and even of members of the council. The audit also noted that the supervisor fails to provide monthly financial reports, as required by state law, and that there have been no required independent audits of town spending, also required by law, over several years.
Nobody is suggesting that Joel Bartlett, or anyone on the Town Council, is profiting personally from this abysmal public behavior. But that cannot be the standard by which elected officials are judged. Whether or not they like it, elected officials are expected to perform to norms established by the state Legislature. The Watertown Town Council has violated or allowed to be violated both statutory and constitutional requirements of conduct. And by doing so, they have conducted public business in the storied smoky back room of politics, far from the public eye.
Why has the public not questioned this? Likely because the town regularly has no town property tax: the levy is regularly bought out by the town's copious sales tax revenue. The town, in fact, is so flush with cash that it regularly helps buy down the town's county tax obligation, reducing the county tax its property owners pay. This taxing largesse makes people complacent, willing to ignore what town officials are doing behind closed doors.
Property owners are not, however, being well served by a Town Council that turns a blind eye to its legal and fiscal obligations. The council needs to get the supervisor under control, it needs to get its financial house in order and it needs to start conducting its business in public, subject to the same scrutiny that town governments have across this state. To do otherwise is a complete abrogation of its civic and legal obligations.