Editor’s Note: The Courier-Herald is publishing a three-part debate between Black Diamond Mayor Carol Benson and her opponent Judy Baxley. Two weeks ago, candidates answered questions concerning the city, and what they would do as mayor to address any issues. Last week was a chance for candidates to rebut their opponent’s statements. Part 3 includes final candidate questions and final statements. Read Part 1 and Part 2 here.
Candidates disagree whether the city received “clean audits” for 2013-2014 (and part of 2015). According to the state auditor’s office, there were no findings that the city of Black Diamond was out of compliance with local or state laws. The city did receive a letter from the auditor’s office stating there were 16 transactions (out of 26 tested transactions) where information that was entered into the city’s system was inconsistent when compared to checks and invoices, and four recommendations were given to Black Diamond to ensure these inconsistencies would not continue. A response was sent to the auditor’s office, saying the city has improved the city’s accounts payable system and staff training. Are those 16 inconsistencies, which can “increase the likelihood that errors or misappropriation could occur,” significant? Why or why not?
BENSON: The auditor tested 26 transactions out of thousands. They identified 16 inconsistencies. Out of the 16 inconsistencies, 14 were date issues only. Our software voucher audit report has been in use since 2009, and did list: vendor name, invoice number, date of service, description (including business purpose, department and contract number) account number and dollar amount. But because the report did not list “transaction dates” (invoice date), some invoice date keypunch errors occurred during 2013-2015 that were not detected due to the report deficiency. As soon as this missing field was detected, we contacted our software vendor and purchased a custom update to add the missing field to the voucher audit report. This invoice date field is now audited along with all other voucher input data.
The other inconsistencies were an invoice that was paid late with no explanation and an early release form that was not approved by another individual. We did not note on vouchers why three invoices from 2014 were not paid until March of 2015. Research showed that the vendor emailed the invoices to an employee who had resigned. We set up a new accounts payable email site in late 2015, before this audit, to best insure late payments like those would not happen again.
Quote from the Auditors report: “Although we did not identify any unallowable expenditures, the inconsistent entries into the system increase the likelihood that errors or misappropriations could occur and not be detected in a timely manner, if at all.” Also in this report: “Management letters communicate control deficiencies, non-compliance or abuse with a less-than-material effect on the financial statements or other items significant to our audit objectives.” This basically says that our financial statements are presented fairly, in all material respects, in accordance with generally accepted accounting principles.
BAXLEY: This campaign is about which candidate will better control and manage the Yarrow Bay-Oakpointe Development, but it is also about the mismanagement of the incumbent’s administration.
When confronted with facts that she overspent her budget by approximately $4,000,000 over two years and signed over $500,000 worth of contracts outside her legal spending authority, incumbent mayor Benson claimed clean audits from the state and blamed the council or citizen volunteers.
Ms. Benson’s reaction is more evidence that we need new leadership. The last complete state audit was for 2013-14, before the incumbent took office. This is a documented fact, and Ms. Benson’s statement is false.
Ms. Benson responded to errors found by the auditor in 2015 by stating that the city’s processes were fixed. However, in 2016, in just one example, her Finance Department paid a bill for over $95,000 to the wrong company (Oct. 6, 2016, council packet). That wouldn’t have happened if the incumbent’s administration were fully compliant with state laws regarding pre-payment of vouchers.
Anyone familiar with running a business knows that purchase requisitions, purchase orders, receipts and bills all need to match up. This wasn’t the case when the state auditor issued its findings, and it still isn’t today.
Additionally, the mayor’s own staff has admitted that “serial contracts” — the mayor’s practice of breaking large contracts into many smaller contracts to evade her maximum legal spending limit of $15,000 — would be a red flag to the auditor. Yet, on one day alone, she signed $60,000 of these unauthorized contracts behind closed doors with no notice to the council or the public. Ask yourself: Is your city better run and managed today than before Ms. Benson took office? Are you confident that your tax dollars are being spent properly? Do you support tax subsidies for land developers?
Candidates disagreed on whether Black Diamond needs a city administrator, a roll which Benson currently fills. Should the roll of city administrator continue to be the mayor after this election? Why or why not?
BAXLEY: The incumbent’s own words demonstrate why we need new leadership, and why we need a qualified city administrator.
The last two years have been difficult for the mayor but they didn’t have to be. She was fixated on protecting her power and making decisions that are not legally within her authority. State law says the five-member City Council makes laws, policies, and contracts, but the mayor will not accept any of these if they don’t match her political preference. A qualified city administrator would tell the mayor what every outside expert says — the mayor cannot deny council-approved contracts. Without a city administrator accountable to both the mayor and council, the mayor has no one to advise her when she is acting outside the norm. I believe she wants it this way. Just like when she publicly ripped up a small contract for a parliamentarian moments after the council voted to approve it. She knows a professional would tell her she was not following Robert’s Rules or normal meeting procedure.
Without a city administrator, Yarrow Bay-Oakpointe development reviews are funneled through one person who does not appear to have any experience beyond Black Diamond. Yet he is responsible for the management of all outside consultants whose contracts were approved behind closed doors by only the mayor.
Ms. Benson used public money to run up outrageous legal bills to support her abnormal and unsupportable ways of running a city. As your new mayor, I will make sure that your city abides by all state and local laws. We’ll cut legal expenses by following the law instead of finding ways to skirt it. As Black Diamond grows, we need more effective management. As your new mayor I will hire a qualified city administrator using existing funds. This will improve service and save money.
BENSON: I spent over 25 years as chief financial officer (CFO) for a conglomerate of businesses which included an engineering company, development company and a construction company as well as many LLC’s for various housing and commercial projects. Their company financial statements and budgets were organized much like the city’s budgets and fund balances. All of the fund balances are treated as separate entities and no funds can be comingled. We can make fund to fund loans, but they are treated like any other loan with regular payments and interest, much like we did when we purchased the police cars.
Prior to that time I was either comptroller or controller in various industries and fields and have spent my entire career, over 50 years, in financial management. I have been involved in the city, first on City Council and subsequently as mayor, for almost five years now. I have the requisite skills to perform the city administrator function. This saves the city about $130,000 plus insurance and benefits where I only receive $12,000 a year, which salary is consistent with other cities our size.
On the other hand Judy Baxley would probably hire a city administrator and that person would likely be Brian Derdowski. Money that could be used for other essential services. Who could have predicted the craziness that has plagued our city for almost two years now? With Judy Baxley and Brian Derdowski, along with Young and Hanrahan, you will get more of the same.
Please attend the live debate at the Black Diamond Community Center on Oct. 17 at 6:30 p.m. The Black Diamond-Maple Valley Chamber is also hosting a debate on Oct. 18, during their regular chamber luncheon at Lake Wilderness Lodge from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.
BENSON: As a local resident for over 38 years, I will protect the quality of our Black Diamond community. My vision is a slow growing development that takes into consideration our roads, transportation, schools and protection of the environment. I will preserve our small town atmosphere. I frequently volunteer at the Black Diamond Community Center and am an active member of the Lake Sawyer Community Club.
I currently serve on several regional transportation boards and am currently the chair of the South County Area Transportation Board (SCATBd). I have been working with the cities of Covington, Maple Valley and the Black Diamond-Maple Valley Chamber to get our state highways of regional significance (169 and 516) into the budget during the next legislative session. I recently attended a meeting of the Washington State Transportation Commission, along with city staff and councilmembers from Covington and Maple Valley, to testify on the same subject of highways 169 and 516.
On Friday, I attended the Maple Valley Rotary as a guest speaker to give an update on the city of Black Diamond. One question I was asked was why I was running for mayor again after the last two years of chaos. I am running for mayor to protect the city of Black Diamond, the staff and the community from people that don’t live in Black Diamond. I am running for Mayor because I like the work and think my background makes me suitable for the role of city administrator. I am running for mayor to protect the city from Judy Baxley and her association with Brian Derdowski and Kristen Bryant (the people that are running Save Black Diamond) and also running the campaigns of Young and Hanrahan. I support Erin Rose Stout and Melissa Oglesbee for City Council.
BAXLEY: I want to thank the Maple Valley Reporter/Courier Herald for this opportunity to debate our city’s real issues.
Residents have been disappointed by all the negativity in the media and their mail. I believe that this negativity is part of an organized attempt to distract the voters from what really matters.
By far, the most important issue facing Black Diamond is the massive Yarrow Bay-Oakpointe development. That huge clear-cut is only about 14 percent of the size of the proposed development. Who you elect this year will decide whether that development has lenient oversight and tax subsidies, or strict but fair strict management.
Our city is indeed overly influenced by outside interests, but those interests are development interests from Kirkland and Chicago. Incumbent Benson was responsible for giving those developers tens of millions of dollars of taxpayer subsidies when she eliminated developer fees to pay for future expansion of police and other city buildings. Today our police make above average salaries, but tomorrow we have no money to fund their headquarters. The incumbent is responsible for errors and omissions that have caused environmental damage and will eventually lead to traffic jams, degraded public services, and higher taxes.
A good leader seeks good counsel and builds a good team. I am lucky to have dozens of residents working on our campaign who have offered to help, as well as former three-term King County Councilman Brian Derdowski, and Ms. Kristen Bryant who was born and raised in Black Diamond. They are well respected in our community and very knowledgeable. Ms. Benson’s attack on my supporters and volunteers demonstrates a troubling loss of perspective.
The choice for Black Diamond is clear: elect a positive new mayor who will restore respect for our city, or continue an administration that reigns over a chaotic city hall.