New Castle News

April 30, 2013

Our Opinion: Right to know reveals intermediate unit problem

By Staff
New Castle News

NEW CASTLE — At this point, we have few details regarding the resignation of the director of this region’s intermediate unit.

Apparently, there was a problem with purchases Cecelia H. Yauger made with a government credit card through the state agency that provides support services to area school districts.

The extent of those problems, as well as any legal consequences, will be determined by a planned audit and possible criminal investigation.

But there are a few things about this matter that are obvious, even without additional details. First and foremost, we have been told questions about the credit card payments arose only after an open records request for them was made by a private party.

Supposedly, the lack of an appropriate response to that request came to the attention of the intermediate unit board — which is composed of representatives of school boards in Lawrence and Mercer counties.

So this is a reminder of the value of Pennsylvania’s right to know law, which is intended to guarantee citizen access to most government records in the commonwealth. Without the open records request, we presume the problem uncovered at the intermediate unit would remain undiscovered.

That brings up a second point: Information released by the intermediate unit last week indicates problems with credit card records may go back to 2007, when Yauger first became director. Why wasn’t there a mechanism in place to review such expenditures? And if there was, how did the problem go undetected for so long?

Credit card transactions aren’t particularly complicated records. We presume even a cursory examination of bills and where the money was paid would raise red flags if there was a problem.

Perhaps that’s a lesson for public entities beyond the intermediate unit. Giving an employee access to a government credit card ought to come with adequate oversight. And if that poses accounting difficulties, then perhaps the solution is to have these employees put charges on their own credit cards and submit documented expenses for reimbursement. Plenty of businesses do it that way.

Meanwhile, we want to return to the topic of open records, with the understanding a move is afoot in Harrisburg to make changes to the state’s right to know law.

Any revisions should not impede citizen access to public information — for any number of reasons. Furthermore, lawmakers must review funding for the state office that oversees implementation of this law. The office needs adequate resources and personnel to do its job.

Having a law that claims to protect the right to know is of dubious value if the tools to enforce it are inadequate or non-existent.