Lack of leadership perpetuates concerns in finance department | Government

One week. That’s how long Katie Mull was the finance director for the city of St. Joseph — the first person named to the post permanently in nearly two years.

Short leadership tenures and openings haven’t been uncommon in recent years at St. Joseph’s City Hall. At times, it’s been hard to keep track of who’s in charge and who holds what position. But no area has been more affected by these changes than the administrative services department, also commonly referred to as the finance office.

Following Mull’s brief stint as director in August, the department went without a permanent leader for two years and two months until city officials announced the hiring of Laurie Tietjen on Wednesday. Tietjen will begin her duties on Jan. 3.

“I’m not gonna be the first to admit this, but we have had leadership problems in that department in the past,” said City Councilman Brian Myers. “Employees have noticed it. Members of council have noticed it. But to get this ship righted and sailing forward in the direction we want it to go, we’re going to need to find someone that is capable of doing the job.”

Hiring a director falls on the shoulders of the city manager, a position which has seen its own turnover problems in the last couple of years.

To understand the concerns within the finance department, we have to go back to August 2019. This is when Beau Musser, the former assistant director of administrative services, sent an email to then-City Manager Bruce Woody alleging poor accounting and financing practices in the department.

Woody said he would look into the allegations. A month later, Administrative Services Director Tom Mahoney was demoted to interim leader of that office.

However, no other significant changes were made at the time. In January 2020, Musser sent a memo to Missouri State Auditor Nicole Galloway after what he alleged was “the lack of an appropriate response by senior city administrators and elected officials.”

In the memo, Musser details “numerous material accounting deficiencies and irregularities with the financial systems.” He continues: “After nearly four months, nothing meaningful has transpired to fix these problems and worse yet, I was removed from supervising the activities on which I blew the whistle.”

City meetings were scheduled. The allegations were talked about. But soon two key parties involved left. Musser resigned in March 2020. Woody left in April, never hiring a new finance director.

Beau Musser (copy)

Former Assistant Director of Administrative Services Beau Musser sent a letter to the State Auditor’s office in January 2020 alleging several accounting deficiencies and irregularities at City Hall.Beau Musser (copy)

When asked why, Woody said he couldn’t comment on the issue because it involves personnel matters.

“Anybody can go in there, hatchet job and roll heads, but (Woody) wasn’t that type of guy,” said St. Joseph Mayor Bill McMurray. “He really tried to coach people and lift them up and pull them along. Some might have negatively thought that that was indecision or inaction, but, no, I don’t think so.”

After Woody left the city, St. Joseph Police Chief Chris Connally became interim city manager. Because his leadership status was temporary, he said he believed it wasn’t appropriate to hire a director position. Instead, he focused on the allegations.

In June 2020, the city council approved an outside audit with Plante Moran to look into the city’s financial procedures. The firm’s recommendations wouldn’t arrive until December. By then, St. Joseph had a new city manager.

Gary Edwards was hired in November 2020, coming from Aransas Pass, Texas, where he also had been city manager. On his first day, he said addressing Musser’s allegations was his top priority.

“It’s my belief at this point and from what little I know as my first day on the job, that many of those allegations from the whistleblower deserve attention,” Edwards told News-Press NOW at the time. “And that was verified by the (audit) report.”

Plante Moran’s audit report ultimately found no purposeful malfeasance or fraud but recommended the city create more efficient workflows, increase automation, improve communication and fill empty positions.

An outside audit firm’s report on Beau Musser’s allegations.

“City financial processes are inefficient,” the report states. “Manual steps are required in many processes.”

Speaking to News-Press NOW last month, Edwards said this is something he noticed when he first started as city manager.

“I’m not a regimented-type person by any stretch of the imagination, but the budgetary process should be,” Edwards said. “It was not as regimented as I would have liked to have seen. I would have liked to have seen the public and the council involved more in the process.”

One of the suggestions from Plante Moran included improving the software. The finance department uses Springbrook, but that system doesn’t communicate well with other software the office has.

“We’re going to have to spend some money and update our software,” McMurray said. “I think that’s the bottom line from my layperson’s view. I’m not an IT guy, but from my layperson’s view of things, that would help our efficiencies.”

Among Musser’s allegations was a sewer revenue billing oversight he said could be causing the city to miss out on $1 million annually. According to outside audit reports and city officials, that oversight has been addressed. But inefficient budgetary procedures still could create lost revenue.

“Whenever the budgetary process is not run as stringent, as regimented as it should be, there will be a waste of taxpayers’ dollars,” Edwards said.

Plante Moran also stated in its report that the “staffing of city financial functions is less than expected” and that “St. Joseph dedicates fewer positions to financial functions on average than other jurisdictions.”

St. Charles, Missouri, a city with a similar population to St. Joseph, has 17 employees in its finance department. St. Joseph has 29, but only 13 handle budget, accounting and purchasing tasks.

With a large workload and less staff, former employees said there is “turf protecting.”

Edwards Headshot.jpg (copy)

Gary Edwards served as the St. Joseph’s city manager for just three months.Edwards Headshot.jpg (copy)

“What that generally means is, ‘I don’t want to let go of certain responsibilities, don’t want to let other people do them’ for whatever reason there may be,” Edwards said. “I saw that happening (in the finance department).”

But implementing new procedures and software, while also hiring staff, can’t be done without a finance director.

“Ultimately, it falls on the shoulders of the mayor, council and city manager,” Edwards said. “But before it gets to those levels, it really falls on the shoulders of the finance director, so having the correct person in there to address the kind of issues we’re talking about here is critical.”

However, in January 2021, without a finance director in place, Edwards resigned two months into the job due to what he said were family health concerns. He is now back in Aransas Pass as its city manager.

To fill the empty city manager position, the city council quickly approved then-City Attorney Bryan Carter as interim leader of St. Joseph’s government. It named him the new city manager in April. Carter said hiring a finance director was a top priority, and he posted the position shortly after he officially was hired.

Bryan Carter (copy)

City Manager Bryan Carter said his priority has been to hire a finance director.

“One of the elements I’ll be asking a new director to look into, first thing, is the procedures and tools that we’re using to accomplish the tasks that we are, to make sure that we are up to date and that we are using procedures that are common, we’re not using procedures that are outdated,” Carter said. “But it’s going to take someone with that solid accounting background to go in and make that assessment.”

With the number of manual procedures and, therefore, the many ways of doing one task, training isn’t consistent and created confusion among staff, according to former employees who worked in the department.

“The root cause is just people not getting the proper training,” Councilman Myers said. “If we address that, this is something that can be corrected with the staff that we currently have, and as soon as that is done, then I think you’re going to see a change in a positive way.”

The city tried implementing a unified training system across departments a couple of years ago, but the process fell through. Now, training in the administrative services department consists of one-on-one work and shadowing a current employee.

“There is likely some inconsistency in the training that people receive because different people have different methods of doing things,” Carter said. “With bringing in a new leader for that department, we do hope to unify some of those training methods and some of the ways that people implement the policies that we use.”

Ultimately, inefficient procedures and inconsistent training affect other departments. Former finance employees said there is a lack of communication that eventually permeates into the rest of City Hall.

“We haven’t had that strong director in place which really helps facilitate that communication,” Carter said. “That’s one of the things that I do want to have in that position is someone who can really help with that communication and take somebody’s accounting language and translate it to the other practices that we have.”

But despite the systemic issues that have plagued the finance department for more than two years, the city continues to sing the same tune.

“This sounds like a broken record, but once we have a new director over there, they can work together and refine these efficiencies even further,” McMurray said.

“Whenever you have a change of leadership, it’s going to cause some delays and things,” McMurray continued. “That’s understandable. COVID and the change in city managers and, of course, the directorship in finance, these are all confounding variables.”

When Mull left after one week, Carter began another search. The second time around, the city received four qualified applications and ultimately hired Tietjen.

As well as communication skills, Carter said he is looking for the next director to have a high level of financial understanding and to be a strong leader.

When Edwards considered leadership changes in the finance department, he said a certified public accountant was a must.

“In fairness to the finance director, in fairness to the finance department, it was my opinion that a CPA needed to head up that department,” Edwards said. “That was my plan.”

Neither Mull nor Mahoney, the finance director when Musser made his allegations, are CPAs. Carter said being a CPA is not a requirement for the job but is recommended.

“The CPA indicates one of those legs that I was talking about in terms of financial understanding, but it doesn’t necessarily indicate that leadership or communication abilities are also there,” Carter said.

For comparison, the finance department in St. Charles, Missouri, has one employee getting a CPA reinstated and two others studying for theirs.

Tietjen is a CPA, unlike her predecessors. Her most recent position was controller/internal control with the College of the Ozarks, a role she has held since 2013.

“Laurie has the knowledge and diverse financial background to effectively lead the finance department,” Carter said in a press release. “I look forward to Laurie joining the organization and working with staff to ensure transparency, exceptional financial accountability and continued efforts to increase technological efficiency.”

Tietjen graduated from the University of Missouri with a Bachelor of Science degree in education. She is a graduate in information science from the University of Missouri, an undergraduate in business from Columbia College, an undergraduate in accountancy from Lincoln University.

“Financing is the lifeblood of any city,” Edwards said. “It’s critically important for things to operate the way they should and to have a person in that position, overseeing that department, to make sure that all the issues that would be of concern to citizens, other employees, mayor and council — it’s critically important to have that person in there who can address those issues.

“If that person is not there, there’s going to be problems.”