ELLSWORTH — The office of county treasurer, elected every four years, is responsible for millions in public tax money and a myriad of accounting funds.
Yet, the only requirement to run for the office is that a candidate be a county resident.
Hancock County Commissioner Bill Clark thinks that needs to change.
“With 35 years of experience, I’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly in that office,” said Clark, who proposed the change at the commissioners’ regular monthly meeting Tuesday. The county wants someone “highly experienced and highly professional in that office. We can’t guarantee that at the ballot box.”
The former sheriff said that in 2005 the board tried to change the office from elected to appointed, but voters rejected the proposal.
“I think we need to get the message out to the rest of the world that county government is trying to professionalize and run like a well-oiled machine,” Clark said.
The public should understand that county finances are “so intricate,” “so complicated” and “so involved,” Clark said. The office needs at least a “professional bookkeeper.”
And yet, there are no requirements in running for office of county treasurer other than residency.
Clark said the current treasurer, Janice Eldridge, indicated she was not going to run again.
“I think the county should make another attempt to make Hancock County treasurer change from elected to appointed,” the commissioner said.
Commissioner Percy “Joe” Brown disagreed.
“If the people want to have a referendum for this, that’s fine,” Brown said. “But for us to dictate to the people who’s going to run for treasurer or what party it’s going to be from, it’s a little over-handed.”
“The people in 2005 overwhelmingly said, ‘No, we don’t want this,’” Brown said.
Clark brought up the legalization of recreational marijuana.
“Marijuana failed several times too,” Clark said.
Eldridge is opposed to the prospective change.
“That’s just taking one more control away from the voters,” Eldridge said. “You can control once the treasurer is elected.”
Clark said he’d like to think that was true, but a report from the Maine Office of the State Auditor said otherwise.
In 2015, State Auditor Pola Buckley conducted an investigation and reported that the Hancock County Commissioners had “sidestepped” the will of the voters by installing a chief financial officer to handle county finances and by reducing the workload of the county treasurer to five hours a week.
Brown said “checks and balances” are why the office of treasurer is set in statute.
“You have a treasurer you can’t order around,” Brown said. “It’s in statute that way to protect the finances. We can’t sign a check. Janice is the only one that can sign it.”
County Administrator Scott Adkins said, “Janice can’t sign a check without the commissioners’ recommendation.”
Adkins had been Penobscot County’s finance director for eight years before coming to Hancock County.
In an interview after the commissioners’ meeting, Adkins said, “Anybody who can balance their checkbook could essentially do a part of the job. But when it comes to closing books out or reporting to the auditors, that’s when it becomes sophisticated.”
“And then of course, counties generally use fund accounting,” Adkins said. “Essentially you have multiple sets of books on one program.”
There is the general operating budget for the county, another fund for the airport and another fund for the jail, Adkins said.
“What further complicates this is using state funds and federal funds,” Adkins said. Those governments want those funds kept in separate pots. “That complicates things.”
“The treasurer’s position is really becoming antiquated,” Adkins said. Most Maine counties have either a finance manager or a finance director.
Clark suggested that at the very least if the board won’t pursue an appointed treasurer, the commissioners should make “substantial changes” to the position of county treasurer so whoever runs “understands what they’re running for.”
“You could have a car salesman running, thinking they’re going to get Janice’s salary and then we say, ‘No, you’re going to get a token $50 a week,” Clark said.
“Why are we making decisions on this when we may not even be sitting in this chair at that time?” Brown said.
“What are you going to do, impeach me?” Clark asked. “I’ve got three more years.”
“If we are unsuccessful in changing this from elected to appointed, we should work on 2018,” the former sheriff said. “What the conditions are going to be for the position so whoever’s running fully understands what they’re running for.”