Small Town Totalitarianism

$5 Million in Missing Funds from the Mahopac Volunteer Fire Department raises a lot of questions.

Small Town Totalitarianism

Jennifer Colamonico

 

Everyone loves firemen. They are strong, brave and selfless. And they make great husbands and fathers (I know this personally, as I am married to one). So when firemen are accused of violating the public trust, we all feel a little disillusioned.

It is soon to point fingers, and hopefully the current investigations (thanks to David McKay Wilson for breaking the story) will quickly and thoroughly determine the course of events that led to as much as $5M in missing funds from the Mahopac Volunteer Fire Department. State and local officials are investigating, and the perpetrator is rumored to have admitted to his crimes.

More importantly, however, this episode reveals a few important lessons that we in Carmel need to learn about accountability and oversight.  It is inconceivable that our town government would hire any vendor to perform a service to taxpayers without a strong mechanism of oversight and accountability for how those public dollars are spent. The MVFD filed annual audit statements, but reports indicate they did not reply to subsequent requests for clarification. And according to MVFD’s own statement as published in this paper, “a fire protection district’s budgets and finances are not subject to government or public scrutiny.”

Welcome to privatized government, dear neighbors. Our government officials hand over our tax dollars to private entities who believe they are not subject to scrutiny. And for several years, it seems there was very little scrutiny. Who reviewed those audits? And was it ineptitude or corruption that no one caught this for so many years? Also, how is it that the man who was MVFD treasurer also happened to sell uniforms and equipment to the department?  Isn’t that like the fox guarding the hen house…and the hen house has a wall built around it to keep the farmers from knowing how many hens are even left?

There are real questions to be answered about why Supervisor Schmitt and the Town Board did not know this was happening. While it is certainly within their right to issue service contracts to private vendors, we should ask ourselves whether privatization is really in the best interest of Carmel and Mahopac residents if it puts tax dollars at risk for paying for someone’s yacht in Florida?

There is also a broader discussion to be had about the nature of fire services in our community. Many towns have paid departments, while others like ours have volunteer departments. There are good and bad aspects to both configurations, and so it is incumbent upon our elected leaders to protect us from such abuses, setting up checks and balances to ensure public safety and fiscal prudence. It would seem now that a fire protection district arrangement with greater fiscal accountability is in order.

“Leaders in the volunteer fire service need to let go of some of the traditions that date back to the Revolutionary War…too often, the biggest impediment to meaningful dialogue is an unreasonable expectation that financial support be given without corresponding accountability.  – Matthew Tobia, assistant chief with the Loudoun County (VA) Department of Fire, Rescue, and Emergency Management, as written in Firefighter Nation, 2013.

But there is a bigger issue that is also part of this unraveling story, and that is the corresponding lack of political accountability in Carmel. In case you aren’t aware, we are living in a one party town, a totalitarian regime controlled by Republican Party bosses and their influential friends. On the surface it may seem like local government is working, but the question is, for whom are they working?

 

When there is no political opponent breathing down your neck to keep you honest, things slip. When there is no perceived political threat, politicians of any persuasion get too comfortable. Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

As citizens, increasingly it seems we fall into 2 camps – those who are partisans (on either side) and the rest who don’t really think about politics (and may not even vote). Many people say that local politics isn’t so much about Democrats and Republicans, but more about taxes and revenue. But whose values are being represented when deciding where to spend the tax revenue? Forging healthy competition for good ideas would help our town better serve the taxpayers.

We all know that “partisanship” in Washington is hurting us more than helping us. But actually a spirited two party system really matters for the health of our democracy. In Carmel, a little partisanship would go a long way to improve government. Shining sunshine into public deals negotiated by town and county leaders would provide greater transparency for residents. Showing that all voices are represented could actually improve civic engagement. People could align with their true party, and not the one whom they fear will punish them for their lack of allegiance.

As the chair of the town party, no one is sorrier than I am that the Democrats could not find anyone willing to step up and challenge the current Supervisor and Town Board members. Especially after this fiasco, our resolve is strengthened to work hard to ensure that we never let any elected official go unchallenged again in this town…not out of spite, but out of a belief in the need for good government. We know Democrats are a minority around this town, but a restless and growing one…and one that needs representation.

Competitive elections across party lines (and I don’t mean the machinations of Republicans who own most of the other lines on the ballot) would force our elected leaders and candidates to talk to more people, listen to more voices, provide more answers. One answer we desperately need now is how it is that one man stole $5M in fire protection funds out from under the noses of our town leaders.

“If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.” – James Madison

 

 

 

 

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