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Friday, May 6, 2016

Guest column: Full disclosure

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Webster County Citizen

Each year, newspapers in Missouri publish county financial statements, which provide complete, concise listings of all county-government expenditures for the previous fiscal year.

It's not a money-making deal. And when we don't publish it, we read it in its entirety, as should you, for no other public document gives a better financial picture of county government.

Per state law, it's a required expenditure for Missouri's second-, third- and fourth-class counties. The statement must run in a legal newspaper for public review.

But if State Rep. Bob Johnson has his way, this year's full statement will be the last one you'll see.

Johnson, a Republican legislator from Lee's Summit, this year introduced House Bill 58, which, in a nutshell, would reduce the current county financial statement to a basic balance sheet, void of the details it has donned for decades.

The end result? A lack of public information.

Testimony on the bill began earlier this month in the House Local Government Committee.

In the first round of testimony, there were plenty present to pledge their support to Johnson's bill, including the Missouri Association of Counties (MAC) and the Missouri Municipal League (MML).

It was a stunning example of your tax dollars at work.

The fact is that Johnson's bill is being driven by the MAC and the state's county commissioners. The MML gladly has aided the cause, as Gary Merkenson of the MML even suggested in testimony that all public notices, such as financial statements, should be posted on government Web sites instead of published in newspapers.

What's worse is that when this bill was discussed by the Missouri House earlier this month, the committee room was filled with county commissioners from across the state who were in the state capitol for "three days of training" with the MAC.

What was the cost of that training, which included hotel rooms, meals and mileage reimbursement? We won't tell you, although it's safe to say that it was more than the amount paid to publish the county financial statements that the MAC is working to eliminate.

Instead, you can read it in the county's financial statement that this newspaper will soon publish. Those figures, listed in detail, are public record. But they won't be if House Bill 58 passes a few weeks from now.

However, we do want it pointed out that your tax dollars, which are spent by your public officials in the form of respective MAC and MML dues, are aiding the cause to limit your accessibility to the county's financial statement.

If you get a chance, ask our three county commissioners their views on House Bill 58. If they say anything other than they're against it, then they aren't working for your best interests. If they say they don't know about it, then scratch your head and wonder what the heck they were doing at their recent "training" in Jefferson City.

Why should you care? It's simple, really. County governments don't play by the same rules as other public bodies. For example, our county commission meets Mondays and Tuesdays, with no set agenda. That's both good and bad.

The good is that the commission is easily accessible to the public. And the bad is that, unlike a city council or school board, the public really has no idea what the commission's daily agenda entails.

That's the benefit of the financial statement. All expenditures are listed, to the last cent. That is full disclosure.