By RYAN FITZMAURICE
Lovell Chronicle 

New training requirements prove controversial among Lovell public officials

 

August 31, 2023



Via Wyoming News Exchange

LOVELL — A new state statute that requires all public officials to participate in an eight-hour course regarding management of public funds has bristled some local board and council members.

The new legal requirement for all public officials originates from House Bill 60, passed during the 2022 legislative session. The legislation received wide support from across the Wyoming Legislature, passing the house 58-1-1 and passing the Senate 29-1.

According to Michael Hansen, an administrator for the Public Funds Division of the Wyoming Department of Audit, the new statute charges the department with establishing the minimum training requirements for all public officers, directly instructing public officers or developing a list of approved training courses that meet the minimum requirement and, most significantly, in cases of public officer non-compliance, requesting the additional oversight or removal of the public officer.

“While the course typically takes between six and seven hours to complete, we want to allow time for a decent amount of questions from participants. The training covers the established minimum training requirements, which are attached to this email, and seeks to provide participants with a basic knowledge of the requirements of being a public officer,” Hansen stated in an email. “To meet the training requirement, public officers must simply be in attendance for the entirety of the course. The intent is to make public officers aware of the responsibilities of their positions and introduce them to some common industry best practices for safeguarding public funds.”

Public officials only need to take the course once during their time of service, with officials only needing to show proof that they received the training when being re-elected or elected to a new position.

Hansen said his department views the training as necessary to protect the vast swaths of public funds handled by local entities every year.

“School districts, community colleges, counties, cities, towns and special districts in the state of Wyoming received a total of $6,274,597,739 in Fiscal year 2022. The DOA’s audits of local government entities tend to contain several common findings, which this training will hopefully help to address. The hope is that providing foundational knowledge of positional responsibilities, proper internal controls and statutory requirements involved with running a government entity will help mitigate audit findings and help to better protect public funds,” Hansen said. 

“I think it’s fair to say that most individuals want to do the right thing as it relates to protecting public funds; that really starts with having the foundational knowledge that this training aims to provide.” he added. “The Public Funds Division regularly hears from concerned citizens throughout the state of Wyoming, who want to ensure those public funds are protected and used for the intended purpose. While the training requirement won’t eliminate all issues, it is a good place to start.”

But some local officials are not thrilled regarding the new requirement, stating that the eight-hour training is an overburdensome requirement added on top of over-full plates.

“May I ask if this is the state or the feds doing this?” Marianne Grant, board member for Big Horn County School District No. 2, asked during a recent meeting before receiving the answer that the new training is the work of the state legislature. “So, I need to speak to the governor about this?”

Matt Davidson, superintendent for Big Horn County School District No. 1, said his board has also expressed some qualms regarding the new training.

“They have shown the same concerns and reservations,” Davidson said when asked if his board had a similar response to Big Horn 2.

State representative Dalton Banks, R-Cowley, said he has heard numerous concerns regarding the training, and he shares those concerns.

“This training is mandated to all public officials, meaning even board members of things like sanitation and cemetery districts. These are people who volunteer their time and have full-time jobs,” Banks said. “Having to sit in a class for a full day is not very volunteer friendly for the people who go out of their way to volunteer their time. We are going to lose a lot of our board members. We already struggle with finding people to fill boards.”

Banks said the training is the result of reports of waste the legislature received at the time of the 2022 session, which occurred before he was voted into office. He said that he feels the training is the wrong approach toward addressing the issue.

“There’s a simpler way to go about handling this,” Banks said. “Councils need to be more vigilant in handling the bills. If they are more vigilant, if they receive the right reports and get the proper audits, that kind of waste won’t happen. There are more efficient ways to protect our funds than to require all boards across the state to take this training.”

Banks said he has spoken to officials in the Department of Audit regarding some of the consequences he has heard boards threatened with if they do not comply with the training, and said he has found every one of those consequences to be an overstep in authority.

“I’ve heard that towns will lose distribution funding and access to grants,” Banks said. “I challenged the Department of Audit on that very thing and after aggressive negotiations they agreed they do not have the power to do that. We don’t have to worry about loans and distribution. That’s a threat they attached to it that had no teeth.”

As far as the Department of Audit threatening the seat of a public official, Banks said that power is also very limited.

Just as Hansen stated to the Chronicle, the statute itself only allows for the Department of Audit to request the removal of a public official. They cannot force it.

“The director may request those in authority to the governing body with oversight over the public officer or other appropriate authority to remove the public officer or provide increased oversight,” the legislation reads.

“I think this is another power grab,” Banks said. “Removing public officials is not something to be taken lightly.”

Banks said he is working with the Wyoming Association of Municipalities to create an online version of the course that will allow board members to complete the course at their own pace, making it more accessible than an eight-hour training.

Hansen said the burden to public officials has been taken into account.

“To the greatest extent possible, we have tried to take into account the fact that many people have other jobs, time constraints and obligations,” Hansen said. 

For this reason, the DOA has tried to approve training courses from other organizations (when they meet the minimum training requirements) in order to give public officers flexibility with options.”

Hansen said that a virtual option has also been offered, allowing public officials to call into an active training. More than 500 public officials have used that option, he said.

Lovell Mayor Tom Newman said some Lovell Town Council members have already participated, and from what he’s heard, board members said they found the course useful but monotonous.

That flexibility allowed by the DOA has been of use, Newman said, with those council members taking the course during a conference that split the information over three days, instead of just presenting it in one sitting.

Lovell also hosted a session on August 23, hoping to get the rest of its officials in compliance with the statute.

“Some people feel like the training is kind of silly. A lot of people are concerned about if a training can be mandated like that for a public position. We’re just going to get it out of our hair,” Newman said. “I’m going to pick my battles, and this is not one of them.”

This story was originally published on August 24, 2023, in the Lovell Chronicle.

NOTE: Worland City Council members completed the training last Wednesday, Aug. 23.

 
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