Posted: 18/11/2008 - 02:13 PM
Author: Adele Ramos
In the recent months, the financial management of municipalities has become a cause of growing concern amid allegations of corruption in local government, but unlike the audit reports of Central Government, which are open and public documents, local government audits – no less controversial – are not nearly as easy to access.
In fact, a journalist in San Pedro, San Pedro Sun’s Kainie Manuel, had to jump many hurdles before she could get the privilege of seeing financial documents. She was told to wait two weeks, then to write a letter, after which she was given a date, and then due to a postponement, a new date, to go to the Town Council to see the document.
She had only an hour to review six years of financials, she was told – no pictures, no photocopies were allowed, and she had to read under the supervision of the town administrator and accountant, who were there, presumably, to answer any questions she might have about the report. The journalist was allowed to take notes on the audit report.
The Opposition People’s United Party’s Belize Rural South arm says that there are serious concerns over allegations of misappropriation and mismanagement of San Pedro Town Council’s funds.
"I can explain ..." When Mayor, when? The people have a right to know how their money is being spent.
But San Pedro Mayor Elsa Paz told our newspaper that the Council was actually run by the PUP for the first three years of the report, and by her party only for the past three years. According to Paz, the report highlights more questions about the council’s financial management for the period for which the PUP ran the San Pedro Town Council, though she admitted that there are questions regarding financial dealings under her tenure.
While the politicians debate the contents of the 2001-2006 audit of San Pedro Town Hall, which collects $3.2 million in revenues annually, the professionals at the Office of the Auditor General have, indeed, raised some legitimate concerns in their audit.
Auditor General Edmund Zuniga told Amandala today that in the audit reports submitted for Central Government and tabled in the House of Representatives on Friday, there were comments about audits for San Pedro and Corozal, indicating that there may have been areas of excessive expenditures – spending that was not justified.
Paz contends that there are answers for any question that the public might raise on the report.
“For me, there is nothing that compromises the council,” Mayor Paz told us, insisting that there were “no serious allegations.”
One of the most glaring irregularities reported is the fact that the area representative was getting paid by the town council. Regarding reports that Belize Rural South area representative, Manuel Heredia, who is currently the Minister of Tourism, was being paid a “stipend” from the San Pedro Town Council’s coffers, Paz confirms that he was, but she claims that Heredia was actually working for the Council. She claims that Heredia was helping them to execute land transactions under her tenure as mayor, and he made several trips to Belmopan in the process. Paz confirms that there were vouchers made out to Heredia.
According to Zuniga, the audits of the municipalities are “management reports,” and go to the Town Councils/City Councils for them to make clarifications on points that seem unsatisfactory.
Paz told us that this is the first audit report presented under her tenure, but it actually covers the period for which the Opposition People’s United Party controlled the Town Council as well (2001-2003).
Paz informed us that the document is open to the public; however, anyone wishing to see it can’t just show up and demand it, but has to write the Council in advance, and they will be given an appointment date and time to view the document.
According to Paz, the reason why the public is required to write beforehand is because at least two officers - the accountant and the town administrator, have to sit with the person so that they can answer any questions that person may have about the document.
This is the process that San Pedro Sun’s Kainie Manuel had to go through. She reported that, “The report reveals information from tax revenues, sale of Council’s property, such as golf carts, liquor licensing board, missing vouchers, and receipts, according to the Auditor General.”
Other concerns included the co-signing of a loan by the Council, the sale of the ferry that was at Boca del Rio Park, advances to employees and others, and the procurement of office supplies, the newspaper further reports.
Contrary to reports that the records for 2001 to 2006 have been destroyed, Paz told Amandala today that the council still has all those records.
The public will also be given a report on the 2001-2006 audits when San Pedro Town’s annual meeting is held at the end of the month, she added.
The Mayor claims that it was the Ministry of Local Government that advised them not to allow the copying of the (audited) documents, even though the council could make its own public report on the audit.
Meanwhile, the Auditor General reports that the audit for the Belize City Council will not be finished until this December, or next January. They would move next to scrutinize the financials of Punta Gorda Town Hall.
As to the audits for Central Government, Zuniga told our newspaper: “We decided three years ago to draw the line” at the 2001/2002 financial year, meaning that they would not be bothering with audits for previous years (reportedly dating back to the 80’s/90’s) that had not been completed.
As to the recurring concerns surfacing during the audit (of Central Government), Zuniga noted that “…it’s a lot of what came out of the same process the last time around…things don’t change unless Governments decide to enforce…” principles of sound financial management.
He said that while the Audit Department can make comments on irregularities that it finds, certain things are “for the police.” There are accusations and allegations of public officers committing wrongdoing - politicians don’t sign – but it takes forever for them to go to court; meanwhile those accused continue to get paid from the public purse, Zuniga commented.