Editorial: They are the public’s numbers

We report this morning that Dukes County officials must rework their $1.5 million budget for the 2014 fiscal year (FY) that begins on July 1, after learning that the calculations that underpinned their spending plan differ from the figures reported by the county’s independent auditors.

“Our audited numbers from last year (fiscal year 2012) just came in,” Dukes County commission chairman Tom Hallahan of Oak Bluffs told The Times. “After learning of the audited numbers, it will change some of the things we’re asking for. It’s going to change. It lets us know what our true numbers were. The numbers were not as expected. I don’t want to say that in a good way or a bad way, but it requires us to go back and look at the budget.”

This page does not assume that the numbers are better or worse than the numbers county authorities worked with to create their budget. We don’t assume that the auditor’s numbers are more or less accurate than the county’s. We do assume that the auditor’s numbers, having been delivered to the county, are public and available for scrutiny, by the county’s constituency and by newspaper reporters. We assume that after such review and necessary reporting, the public and the reporters will be able to make informed judgments about how the differences occurred and what they mean.

As reporter Steve Myrick has explained, county officials, and particularly the elected treasurer and the appointed manager, have not given a copy of the auditor’s 2012 numbers to Mr. Myrick, despite a formal, Massachusetts Public Records Act request on the newspaper’s part. We think the unwillingness to make the auditor’s document available violates both the letter and especially the spirit of the act.

The comfort of public officials is not implicated in the terms of the Public Records Act rules. The object is not to immunize public officials against discomfort but to enable constituents to understand, in every dimension, the practices, decisions, and deliberations of those who act on the public’s behalf. The act is intended to enhance the comfort of those who are the beneficiaries or victims of the public actions they underwrite.

That’s why the Public Records Act is written in such bald and unequivocal terms as it is: “Every record that is made or received by a government entity or employee is presumed to be a public record unless a specific statutory exemption permits or requires it to be withheld in whole or in part,” according to the Massachusetts Secretary of State’s guide to the public records act.

The auditor’s judgment may or may not be correct, some adjustment and negotiation may or may not be required to get the numbers straight, but the public has a unique and lawful right to be acquainted with the issues that are part of the discussion.