Public debate over a public official’s future is fun for no one. Especially in a small community.
Pain and emotions ran close to the surface last week as Lincoln County commissioners heard eight hours of testimony on whether first-year Treasurer Lorie Koertner had fallen so short in her performance as to warrant removal.
Many a human conflict was unveiled, and not just in the Treasurer’s Office. That’s inevitable when people share a workplace and community for many years.
Legal fights in cases like these are inevitable, too. No one should be surprised if the County Board’s dismissal of Koertner — using a state law seemingly unused in 139 years — moves to the courts.
But two things now should be clear:
» The performance of a county treasurer has implications far beyond the courthouse, because of his or her responsibility for handling tax collections for every local government.
» Those who receive the treasurer’s post must work to be as fully prepared as possible.
By her own testimony, Lorie Koertner — who knew she would be the next treasurer eight months in advance — fell short of that standard.
County voters last year had good reason to believe Koertner was up to her task, since she had five years’ experience as treasurer in Webster County.
But last week, Koertner said under oath she had never taken advantage of a class the Nebraska Association of County Officials offers for first-time treasurers. She didn’t take it while in Webster County. And she didn’t take it here.
When commissioners asked if she was aware of various state laws setting standards and deadlines for fulfilling her office, Koertner admitted she didn’t know several critical ones.
She’s a hard worker. And yet her lack of knowledge seeded most of the problems cited in the Nebraska Auditor of Public Accounts attestation report, begun after Koertner’s removal May 13.
The six particulars cited by the County Board in last week’s final removal votes closely track with that report, available at auditors.state.ne.us.
As we interpret the report, commissioners had no choice but to act.
As noted here in May, county boards in Nebraska have precious little legal influence over the small group of independently elected “row officials” that includes county treasurers.
Commissioners have some influence at budget time. They also must provide office space, which is why Koertner had to work with them in combining the two treasurer’s workspaces into one.
But county boards cannot tell row officials how to do their jobs or run their offices.
Only when certain row officials egregiously fail in their duties — and mainly only when tax collections are involved — do county boards have any legal ability to remove them.
No county funds were found missing or embezzled from Koertner’s office — though taxpayers should be alarmed that $6.14 million in undeposited checks could be seen around the office when the auditors arrived.
But one can be innocent of criminality, as Koertner surely seems to be, and still prove unequal to a job.
After this experience, we believe the Legislature should add a professional qualification that Nebraska county treasurers must meet in order to serve.
State law already requires this of certain row officials. County attorneys and public defenders must have Nebraska law licenses. Sheriffs must be licensed law enforcement officers and complete a certification course.
Assessors likewise must be certified to perform their task. Even county surveyors must be professional engineers or land surveyors.
No similar prerequisite exists for treasurers.
There isn’t one for county clerks, district court clerks or registers of deeds, either. But the stakes are higher when North Platte’s school board is forced into emergency borrowing because the county treasurer hasn’t processed tax checks or the Sutherland schools miss a bond payment only the treasurer could make.
If it’s unrealistic to require treasurers to be certified public accountants, senators could require general-election or even primary winners to take NACO’s first-time treasurer’s course within a set period of time.
There’s rarely only one reason why any human conflict develops. Last week’s testimony suggested the transition from retiring Treasurer Sue Fleck to Koertner, coupled with multiple staff retirements, contributed to the crisis.
Still, voters have seen why no voter can afford to ignore his or her homework before casting a ballot. Ultimately, what happened in the Treasurer’s Office isn’t on the County Board. It’s on us.
Nebraskans in the other 92 counties should heed our lesson, too.