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New Bloomfield petition meets challenges

New Bloomfield petition meets challenges

April 25th, 2018 by Helen Wilbers in Local News

New Bloomfield residents speak out at the City Council meeting Feb. 8, 2018. Cuts to law enforcement hours, including the dissolving of Sgt. Brad Brewer's position, far right, proved a contentious topic.

Photo by Helen Wilbers /News Tribune.

NEW BLOOMFIELD, Mo. — New Bloomfield residents no longer have the 100 valid petition signatures required to trigger a state audit of city finances.

"We received 13 signature withdrawals within the 10-day time frame," said Steph Deidrick, the Missouri state auditor's press secretary. "That's a process that's established by law. We post the notification to our website, and then individuals are able to fill out and submit signature withdrawal forms (within 10 days)."

Initially submitted April 10 with 102 signatures, the 13 withdrawals bring the total of signatures to 89. However, Deidrick said, petitioners have until March 11, 2019, to gather enough signatures.

Several New Bloomfield residents have claimed city officials visited signatories Friday.

"If people asked me questions, I answered their questions," Alderman Rosemary Augustine said Tuesday.

She declined to comment directly on whether she asked residents to remove their signatures.

Dean Powell, a volunteer helping to fill New Bloomfield's empty city clerk role, said he obtained a copy of the signature list from New Bloomfield City Hall. Augustine said the list had been requested by former city clerk Cassidi Knierim.

"(The petition is) a public document, so it can be (shared) if someone submits a (Sunshine Law) request," Deidrick said.

This means anyone — including city officials — may access the list of signatories.

Powell said he approached at least eight people who had signed the petition. He also claimed some of them believed they were signing a petition requesting the police department be brought back.

"All of them I talked to were misled," he said Tuesday. "They took their names off."

Powell said he provided people with copies of the signature withdrawal form and arranged for the documents to be notarized.

New Bloomfield resident Benny Colter said Knierim approached him at his home Friday, her final day on the job. She had a clipboard with a list of names, some highlighted, he said.

"I could see my name and my neighbor's name," Colter said.

Knierim did not bring up the petition directly, he added.

"She asked me what the city could do to make it better," Colter said. "(I told her) we ask questions, we want answers."

Colter said he did not remove his name from the petition.

Activists in the Concerned Citizens of New Bloomfield, Missouri, group already are working to meet the 100-signature threshold again.

"We will not have a problem getting (signatures)," said Cheri Wilson, head of the Concerned Citizens group. "We've actually had people calling us to come and get their signatures. We're easily at 20 already. We haven't even gone out on the streets yet."

Dubious claims

Wilson said misinformation being circulated includes a claim a state audit isn't necessary because the city already is audited annually. Additionally, residents have been told money for the audit would come out of their own pockets, she said.

"From what I understand, they've even told some they could receive individual bills for the audit," Wilson said.

Augustine and Powell denied making that claim to residents.

"It's outlined in state law that the entity being audited would pay for the audit," Deidrick said. "It's up to the entity to pay those invoices."

The city pays for its annual audits as well. In 2017, the city set aside $11,500 for its annual audit, according to an amended budget. In 2018, $9,200 was budgeted.

Tax money might go toward paying for the audit, but Wilson pointed out, aldermen already have been discussing raising taxes for the city.

Additionally, the audits performed by the state auditor's office differ from annual audits.

"Government entities typically have a financial statement audit," Deidrick said. "These look at financial statements and make sure they're being recorded accurately. As a broad example, (the financial statements) could say the entity is bankrupt, but as long as this is judged to be accurate, they'd get a clean opinion."

State audits are performance audits, Deidrick explained. They look at compliance with state laws, local ordinances and procedures, and best practices. Performance audits measure more than whether financial statements merely match up.

Budget brouhaha

Residents decided to request the audit after the dissolution of New Bloomfield's police department raised questions about the city's budget.

At the beginning of 2017, the New Bloomfield Police Department consisted of Chief Greg Mooney, with 60 paid hours per month, and Sgt. Brad Brewer, with 20-30 hours per month, plus three unpaid reserve officers. Following the release of the 2018 budget, Brewer's position had been dissolved and Mooney's hours cut. After contentious City Council meetings, Mooney was asked to resign Feb. 28. He claimed he was told he had violated the city's media policy.

The city has not filled Mooney's former position. A 1959 city ordinance states the city must appoint a chief of police following its annual election, but it is unclear whether subsequent ordinances might affect that requirement. For example, in 2015, New Bloomfield residents passed a ballot measure allowing the city to skip an election when the number of candidates is equal to the number of open positions.

Mayor Greg Rehagen has said budget issues led to the cuts. Police salaries — $15,350 in the 2017 budget, $14,580 in the 2018 budget — are paid from the general fund, he said during the February council meeting.

Earlier plans by the Concerned Citizens group to petition for Rehagen's recall have fallen through, Wilson added.

"We found out that you cannot do that for a fourth-class city," she said. "There's really nothing we as citizens can do short of hiring an attorney and go through all that."

However, the group plans to select candidates to support for the next aldermen and mayoral election.