The Bitterroot Star has received a lot of praise in the last week after breaking the story about the default judgment against Ravalli County Treasurer Valerie Stamey in a South Carolina court. While it’s a good feeling to get a pat on the back for work well done, the Star shouldn’t be the one doing background checks on a county official. The information we published is available to anyone willing to look for it. And the most important take away from this latest revelation is that those that should have looked for it didn’t do it.
During the past few months, evidence has continued to mount that indicates that, at best, Stamey is totally unqualified to serve as a county treasurer, and at worst, her integrity is highly suspect. This person is responsible for accounting for millions of dollars in taxpayers’ money! How did this happen? And more importantly, who is responsible?
When former treasurer Marie Keeton resigned, the county advertised the treasurer position. Stamey listed “thirty years… government fund accounting… experience” as one of her qualifications and “demonstrated knowledge of general accounting principles, government fund accounting, profit and loss statements, bank deposits and statements, financial analysis and reconciliations” as one of her quantitative skills. But in looking at Stamey’s work history – as listed on the resume she turned in with her job application to the county – we see that government fund accounting is not something she ever actually did. The four most recent jobs listed are: Director of Catering at a university, Accounting Specialist at a water company, Facility Manager at a hotel, and Food Service Supervisor at a school district. While these positions may require a complex and impressive skill set, the skills just don’t match the ones required for a county treasurer. Not even close.
The position posting that the county filed at the Job Service was very comprehensive.
Here is a sampling of items listed in the “Qualifications and Experience” section:
• Knowledge and experience with financial software, preferably Black Mountain
• Knowledge and experience with Montana tax system
• Degree in finance or accounting preferred
• Thorough knowledge of funds investing
• Knowledge and experience with a variety of bond payments
• Experience with state MERLIN MV registration and office management preferred.
Here is a sample of a portion of one of the Montana statutes covering the duties of a county treasurer included in the county’s job posting:
20-9-212(13) shall remit on a monthly basis to the department of revenue, as provided in 15-1-504, all county equalization revenue received under the provisions of 20-9-331 and 20-9-333, including all interest earned, in repayment of the state advance for county equalization prescribed in 20-9-347. Any funds in excess of a state advance must be used as required in 20-9-331(1)(b) and 20-9-333(1)(b).
It seems highly unlikely that anyone who hasn’t worked in a county tax office would have much of an understanding of what the above actually means. At least two commissioners have defended their choice of Stamey by saying “she interviewed well.” How important is that as a determining factor? One commissioner, Suzy Foss, further justified her choice in a television interview, saying that “We have a department that for over 40 years has been breeding their own next person. Every business needs to have an expansion of ideas and thoughts and certainly management skills.” Foss’ comments point out just how great her lack of understanding is when it comes to the skills required for a competent county treasurer. Why would the Treasurer’s Office need “an expansion of ideas and thoughts”? Stamey’s “management skills” are evidenced by the continuing exodus of employees from her department.
What they need is the experience to carry on. Former Treasurer Marie Keeton also recognized this on the day she was appointed. She told the commissioners they needed the most experienced person and recommended competing applicant JoAnne Johnson for the position for that very reason. The responsibilities are statutory and specific; the treasurer does not have any authority to change that. And neither do the commissioners.
Only after losing at least three competent staff members of the Treasurer’s Office, and only after hearing from most of the tax-supported entities in the county that for months they have not been receiving timely payments and reports, have the commissioners finally contacted the state Department of Administration to help untangle the mess at the Treasurer’s Office and said they will hire an outside accounting firm to help get the work caught up.
Only after Stamey’s personal integrity has been called into question by investigative stories in local newspapers and television stations did the commissioners set up a meeting at which they have asked Treasurer Stamey to give them her version of the South Carolina judgment. The county is also saying now that in the future it will do complete financial checks on anyone hired to a position that has a fiduciary responsibility.
But after more than four months of Stamey’s “demonstrated” inability to fulfill the responsibilities of a county treasurer, this is definitely too little, too late. The only thing left for the commissioners to do, if they hope to gain back the public’s trust in their ability to govern, is to suspend Stamey immediately pending the outcome of a thorough investigation. And they should consider hiring Mary Kay Browning, a former treasurer who has said she will run for the position in the next election, to help straighten things out.
It seems that, in an attempt to deflect the focus away from Stamey. some are now going to claim that the dysfunction in the Treasurer’s Office has been going on for years. However, the people who should know – such as Clerk and Recorder Plettenberg and CFO Murphy – have said publicly they’ve never seen anything like this. It’s unclear why Commissioners Greg Chilcott and J.R. Iman – who did not vote in favor of appointing Stamey – have waited so long to try to fix this mess, but they need to act decisively and immediately in order to distance themselves from this outrageously irresponsible commission decision, just the last in a long line of them. Hopefully, they can salvage their credibility. It’s probably too late for the other three.