Small Towns and Combined Municipal Positions – A Worthy Risk?

While cities and towns have had problems finding qualified individuals to guide their operations for the past decade, smaller towns have had an even greater disadvantage. Many are too remote, or do not have the ability to pay for experienced professionals to run their administrative functions, such as the duties performed by the administrator, town accountant and the treasurer/collector.

Many of these roles were traditionally performed by residents who took the posts as part of their civic duty, or by professional “circuit riders” that took the same part time position in several towns. Both of these options are waning in the 21st century, leaving small towns with far fewer options.

In response to this new reality, some towns are looking to single individuals to not just oversee, but to actually perform the tasks that historically have been kept separate. This is allowable through Section 20 of the conflict of interest law; G.L. c. 268A, which exempts employees of towns with a population of less than 3,500 from the prohibition of holding one municipal position, as long as the board of selectmen formally approve the additional appointments.

 While this option is legal, it is not without risk. Allowing a single individual to manage all sides of a town’s financial process compromises internal controls, allowing for the possibility of fiscal mismanagement or fraud.  This risk is compounded in that many small communities are not audited regularly, allowing these actions to go undetected for years. 

 The most infamous case of fraud due to a lack of internal controls is that of Rita Crundwell, who as the appointed comptroller AND treasurer of Dixon, Illinois, embezzled 53.7 million dollars over 22 years as part of the largest municipal fraud in American history.

Citizens entrust their selectmen and administrators to efficiently and effectively manage their town government.   Placing too much responsibility with one individual, no matter how capable or honest they appear, is a risky proposition.