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Commissioners not under state scrutiny

August 14, 2011

From left to right - Starke County Commissioners: Kathy Norem, Dan Bridegroom and Jennifer Davis met Thursday, Aug. 11 in an emergency meeting to discuss and act upon issues regarding the Starke County Treasurer's office. There decision was to remove the staff and treasurer from the office. An action, the Associated Press says the state is questioning.

KNOX — The State Board of Accounts (SBOA) is questioning the Starke County Commissioners’ decision to remove Linda Belork, an elected official, from her position as Starke County Treasurer, according to an article published by the Associated Press. The article says the SBOA wants commissioners to explain what authority they used to remove Belork from her position.
“Deputy State Examiner Paul Joyce told The Associated Press while there are processes to remove elected officials from office, he's not sure commissioners used the proper one when they voted Thursday to remove Belork.”
Starke County Commissioner Dan Bridegroom said no one from the Associated Press contacted the commissioners regarding the removal of Belork. However, Bridegroom did receive correspondence from the SBOA about the same time as the AP article was published, which he turned over to Martin Lucas, the county's legal counsel.
"About the time the AP report appeared online, Commissioner (Dan) Bridegroom received an email from Tammy White, a CPA at the State Board of Accounts. Ms. White asked for the statutory or constitutional authority relied upon by the commissioners in making the decision, but also stated that she wasn't questioning it," said Lucas.
Lucas said he provided white with the requested information.
"Commissioner Bridegroom forwarded Ms. White's email to me. I responded on the county's behalf, saying: 'The basis for the removal of Linda Belork as Treasurer of Starke County is Indiana Code 36-2-10-3: 'The county executive may remove the treasurer from office if he is delinquent and has been sued on his official bond.' I also informed Ms. White about the filing and basis for the lawsuit in Starke Circuit Court Cause No. 75C01-1108-PL-00024," Lucas said.
White sent the information provided by Lucas to the state examiner.
"Ms. White forwarded my response to Mr. Joyce. I spoke with him on the telephone shortly after he received the email. It was my impression that this information answered his question," Lucas said.
The wheels that were put in motion to secure the treasurer’s office were spinning before last week, Bridegroom said. And while officials at the state level were aware of the commissioners’ intentions, Bridegroom said they did not tell the county to take the actions that they chose.
“The auditors knew what we were going to do. They were aware of what was coming down — but no, they did not tell us to do this,” he said.
According to Bridegroom, the commissioners’ decision to secure the treasurer’s office was documented and sent to the state in June.
“We had to write a corrective action plan — so they (SBOA) were aware this (removing Belork) was within our plan, which we first submitted in June. We submitted it again last week, with our 2010 exit interview” he said.
Bridegroom said removing Belork and her staff was the county’s last alternative.
“We chose this course of action because it was the only avenue left to us. By doing this, we froze all the computers, files, programs — everything has been archived and put in a frozen file. They are with our legal counsel, Martin Lucas. He will release everything to an examiner,” he said.
Bridegroom said Belork was trying to find and correct the errors which threw the county’s books off by an amount that could reach $900,000.
“She is well aware of the discrepancy, and we were aware of the discrepancy, and she is just unable to find the discrepancy, even though she has been searching for it,” said Daniel Bridegroom.
But despite Belork’s efforts, the errors could not be pinned down and the problem was escalating.
“We were looking at the pattern every month. I’d talk to them to see if they were making progress in locating the funds that were missing in the ’09 report — but things were only getting worse,” Bridegroom said.
With the 2010 report still out, more detailed information is not available.
“When we get the 2010 report back, we’ll be able to sit down and explain more of our position,” Bridegroom said.
Overhauling the treasurer’s office was not an easy decision. Bridegroom said it was just the only option to resolve the problem and show taxpayers where their money is.
“I don’t like doing this — the last thing any of us wanted was to give the county another black eye. If the missing money’s on paper, fine. We’re not saying anyone stole the funds. We are just trying to show the people where the money is at.”

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