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Good decision, wrong reason

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It isn’t often that good public policy and political expedience intersect. They’re pretty much like two train tracks, sliding into infinity never to cross.

Once in awhile, though, it happens. It happened in Lewis County last month when the Legislature backed away from an apparently pending decision to hire Brian J. Wohnsiedler as its next county manager, postponing selection of someone to administer the county’s day-to-day business until a new and likely significantly different Legislature takes office in January.

Leaving such an important decision to the new board is good public policy. With many members of the board not seeking re-election, and serious challengers facing others, it is prudent to leave this decision for the new board. It is also politically expedient, because there has been significant blowback over Mr. Wohnsiedler’s selection, since he was forced to leave his job as executive director of the Jefferson County Soil and Water Conservation District under less than optimum circumstances.

Mr. Wohnsiedler was asked to step aside by the district’s board of directors after it was discovered that he was comingling funds and borrowing against future government grants to keep the district afloat. At the time, he maintained he had done nothing wrong, and said “using available resources has always been a practice” at the district. This mea nonculpa was blithely accepted by Lewis County legislators, who had his appointment to the manager’s post all teed up until Legislator Paul Sanford and some members of the public started asking pointed questions.

Brian Wohnsiedler, a resident of Harrisville, is a popular guy in Lewis County. His family has long ties there, and he is well liked and considered to be “a real nice guy,” one Diana resident told me. And I have no doubt that is true.

But you cannot sweep what happened at Jefferson County Soil and Water under the carpet. An audit of the district found that while there was no criminal wrongdoing, there were “material weaknesses” in the district’s financial operations. Among other things, district cash was not kept in separate bank accounts, certain financial duties were not segregated to provide checks and balances, there was no formal budgeting process and the district’s policy on equipment use was not followed. These are all responsibilities of the district’s director, despite Mr. Wohnsiedler’s claim of being blameless.

To explore Mr. Wohnsiedler’s implied “everybody does it” defense, I called a soil and water district director in a county far enough south of here to keep personalities out of the mix, and asked him what he thought of the situtation, which he said he was somewhat familiar with.

Specifically, when I asked him outright if everybody — or even anybody — at other districts were comingling grant funds with general operational funds, he uttered an expletive often associated with barnyard waste.

“Nobody I know does that,” he said. Standard operating procedure is to put everything into separate accounts, so that the status of each project that has recieved state or federal grants can be instantly reviewed.

“It does a couple things,” he said. “It earns a little interest that we can use. And it lets the board know what’s going on. Directors can see each month what project status is.”

So no matter how good a guy Mr. Wohnsiedler is, he made some fundamental, not generally accepted mistakes. Those mistakes put his organization in an untenable financial situation, and he was asked to resign. The district handles about a million dollars each year, with about $385,000 of that not related to specific projects and grants. Lewis County, not counting its hospital, has a budget of about $40 million and has scores, rather than a handful, of employees.

No matter how great a guy Mr. Wohnsiedler is, two things should foreclose on his application to be Lewis County manager. He showed he could not handle a budget that is roughly 2.5 percent of the county’s. Perhaps more damning, he has not to date publicly taken responsibility for his decisions. Those two significant problems should be insurmountable to his application to run the county.

The sitting Legislature has decided not to consider any of this by putting off the selection of a manager for six months. We can only hope that the new legislature, while acknowledging what a nice guy Mr. Wohnsiedler is, also will seriously consider his track record before putting him in charge of the county.

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