On Wednesday night’s Bremerton City Council agenda is the nomination of Becky Hasart to take over as the city’s finance director. A week ago we had a story about what happened when and after she was in Washougal. In short, the city was tagged with findings for missing money. Essentially, the city spent money on festivals and a farmers’ market and missed on several procedures and was reimbursed for too little. Many of those expenditures came from the mayor’s office.
That kind of mess cannot look good for a candidate wishing to run the finances of another city and it certainly was a hurdle Hasart had to overcome. She did it successfully, though, not only in Bremerton but in at least one other location where she was offered a job. Hasart also had an interview lined up for another government. She canceled it when she was offered the Bremerton job, she told me.
The first sense that there was an issue came in a Bremerton City Council study session when City Councilman Will Maupin said the city’s prime candidate had been on the right side of a mess at Washougal.
Once we had Hasart’s name, we did some checking of our own. We read the state auditor’s reports and news stories from The Columbian, The Oregonian and the Camas-Washougal Post-Record. I talked to a Columbian reporter, the city’s current mayor and Hasart herself, Bremerton Mayor Patty Lent and Maupin. I sought further help from the auditor’s office in finding a summary letter he wrote outlining the issues he found. I also tried to contact the former mayor of Washougal, but was unsuccessful.
The auditor’s reports are effective for finding out what the problems are, but in the end are not all that useful in determining exactly why they happened. Some of the poor practices named in the report could fall on the finance director, but other people within the city have the ability to spend money before the finance director has the chance to correct a problem.
Washougal did get issued another finding in an earlier year, because of a problem Hasart said she found herself. That kind of finding is not all that uncommon.
In the case of the missing money, however, no such clarity exists. Hasart’s name appears in the audit, but so does the mayor’s and every member of the city council. They are in a list of city officers.
Where Hasart got her most support was in the interviews Bremerton council members and the mayor did with others from Washougal. They were all supportive of Hasart. My experience with the city’s current mayor, Sean Guard, was pretty much the same, but I believe he might have been more reserved with me (a media member) than he was with Bremerton city officials who called. City officials are likely to be more candid with other city officials than they might be with a reporter.
There is, then, the other context, best illustrated by the story in The Oregonian. The former mayor, Stacey Sellers, fires almost all, if not all, the department heads, including Hasart. Her replacement for Hasart is a sitting city council member who the city later learned had had his law license suspended for misdealings with two clients. The council had also agreed to a mayor’s request that all questions from the council to department heads go through her, essentially shielding staff from the council.
The mayor and the Hasart’s replacement went to Las Vegas for a conference and among the charges they made on a city credit card were for alcohol, including $88 for a 2000 bottle of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. Washington taxpayers are not obligated to pay for city officials’ alcohol, so those charges were disallowed. Sellers was trounced in her bid for re-election and resigned shortly after the election. She did repay the charges for those drinks.
Because the auditor could not get cooperation in his look at what caused the city to misspend money, he couldn’t make any conclusion for why it happened. A non-profit that was the recipient of some of the money refused to be interviewed or provide some records. Others I spoke to, however, said Hasart helped in the investigation. After she left the city she also helped Washougal as it prepared its 2010 budget. She did it for nothing, according to Guard.
The current mayor has since asked the Clark County Sheriff’s Office to investigate what happened in the city. Nothing has come of that yet.
Hasart interviewed well when she met with those in Bremerton on the interview panel. Some were reminded of Laura Lyon, former Bremerton finance director now with the Bremerton Housing Authority. They said she displayed a knowledge of city finances necessary for someone about to take on the job.
Making the decision to look into something further depends on a lot of elements. From what I received in one day of checking into this matter, it seems to me that if I spent a lot of time looking into this more the possibility is high that if I did find a solid place to lay the blame, it would be with someone besides Hasart. We will likely not be able to make any conclusions until the sheriff and prosecutor down in Clark County decide that charges should be filed against someone, if that ever happens.
I do still have a question about the mayor of Washougal having that much discretion over that much spending, but based on the narrative I heard from others down there, it is not out of the question. Mayors have budgets. Mayors make decisions. This money that’s unaccounted for did come from the mayor’s office.
And people do find themselves working in bad situations they cannot control. That’s what people tried to tell me happened to Hasart. For Bremerton’s sake, everyone here has to hope they’re right.