Hernando County shouldn't provide public assistance to the county fair association until the nonprofit group cleans up its act by responding to the well-deserved scrutiny of its operations with a complete audit of its finances and internal controls.
Instead, accountability and transparency have been clouded by ignorance, ineptitude and defiance. Last month, the association provided bad information to commissioners and an outdated financial statement altered to appear current when asking for $20,000 plus thousands more in in-kind contributions for the upcoming fair. The fallout was immediate, resulting in a critical review of the fair's operations by three of its own board members and a still-pending criminal investigation by the Hernando Sheriff's Office.
Unfortunately, ducking accountability is nothing new. Financial questions about the fair's operations date to 2008 and former board president Sandra Nicholson recently acknowledged she was remiss in not ordering a required audit during the four years she headed the organization. The mea culpa, however, doesn't restore public trust when there are so many legitimate questions that remain unanswered. Nor did Nicholson aid her cause when she questioned the knowledge of three peers who conducted the review.
That internal review came after Nicholson and board president Robin McAndrew's embarrassing appearance before county commissioners last month in which they asked for financial assistance to market the fair and a waiver of the trash disposal tipping fees. McAndrew, however, presented commissioners with a 2012 financial statement that had been altered to read "2013'' and misquoted the cost of the $3,000 tipping fees as $10,000. Nicholson later attempted to explain away the altered document by suggesting it resulted from harmless doodling. The review committee eventually determined that human error, not a purposeful attempt to mislead the commission, caused the 2012 statement to be presented as the 2013 report, which has yet to be completed.
The bumbling, however, reinforced the fair board's image of volunteers unable or unwilling to follow standard financial safeguards. It led former fair board member Ty Mullis to lodge a complaint with authorities alleging lax bookkeeping, inventory control and dubious business dealings by individual board members. The Sheriff's Office agreed to investigate and the fair board is waiting until the inquiry is complete before returning to the commission to repeat its request for financial help.
In the meantime, both the board and the county commission, which deeded the fairgrounds to the association in 2008, need to act.
To ensure appropriate oversight, Commission Chairman Wayne Dukes should remove Nicholson's ex-husband, Commissioner Nick Nicholson, as the county's liaison to the association. The commissioner has mirrored his ex-wife's role as board apologist and he would better serve the public if he allowed a more impartial set of eyes to represent the commission (and the public) on the fair board.
The fair board should heed the recommendations of its review committee. It should expedite a forensic audit and the incomplete 2013 financial report, and work to ensure "an arm's length distance on all financial transaction in which the Executive Committee conducts business. Special emphasis should be placed on avoiding conflicts of interest at all costs.''
It's sound advice that cannot be ignored. Sandra Nicholson contends the fair is "operating on a shoestring'' and cannot afford a forensic audit. More appropriately, she should wonder how the fair board can afford not to seek a timely and through financial review to restore public faith in the fair managers.