A special audit of retirement payments made to village of Tijeras employees was released Monday, June 11, and the investigation found the payments were improper and calculated incorrectly.
Village employees will need to return $47,350.94 of the $64,423.65 disbursed.
Tijeras Mayor Gloria Chavez and deputy village clerk Diane Klaus issued the checks in January, after finding a previously passed resolution they interpreted as indicating the village had withheld more than required for employees’ share of the Public Employee Retirement Association fund.
One of the stipulations in the audit is for Chavez to “publicly apologize to staff and the residents for taking unilateral action based on misinformation and bad communication that impacted the lives and finances of so many employees, and the financial standings of the village.”
Chavez said she had planned to give the public apology at Monday night’s meeting but did not get the chance because the meeting became difficult.
“I am deeply sorry for my actions. There was no criminal intent meant. I was misguided,” Chavez said via phone Tuesday.
Chavez said she plans to make a formal apology at the council meeting on Monday, June 18.
Though some former and current employees were owed a reimbursement, the individual calculations were done incorrectly. The mayor herself was overpaid by $6,745.91 and Klaus by $10,624.55.
The audit also revealed that some former employees are due reimbursement checks totaling $71,957.99.
On May 1, auditors from the New Mexico State Auditor’s Office made a surprise visit to the Tijeras village hall as part of its investigation into the PERA reimbursements.
The special audit contained 14 findings, including possible criminal violations of the Governmental Conduct Act by Chavez and Klaus, lack of evidence of council approval of the budget, anti-donation violations, potential abuse of mileage and per diem and violations of the village’s nepotism policy.
“A government official can’t just write themselves and their friends a check for $10,000 with no accountability or controls,” said State Auditor Wayne Johnson. “The village of Tijeras made some serious errors, and lacks the basic internal controls and processes that keep public monies safe.
“This audit should be used as a tool, not just for Tijeras, but for other small towns, to remember the basic fundamentals of good government.”
In January, the village issued $64,423.65 in PERA reimbursement checks, which were not approved by the council or publicly discussed until Councilor Jake Bruton received his reimbursement check in April.
“I think we made some gross errors here, someone has,” Bruton said at the April 23 council meeting. “It seems like negligence, that this was never brought to the council.”
At that meeting, Chavez said it was not negligence, adding that she “made that call,” to issue the reimbursement checks.
The self-described executive decision made by the mayor was the main issue which led auditors to investigate and uncover other problems, such as the lack of council approval of budgets, budget adjustments or employment decisions, such as hiring and firing.
“The finances and prescribing the compensation to be paid to municipal officers and employees are express duties of the village council, not the mayor,” the audit reads.
The audit suggests mediation and additional training to make sure both the mayor and council are doing their jobs within the village administration.
Another finding was in regards to improper reimbursement checks paid to Klaus, which could be deemed anti-donation violations.
The reimbursement checks were for home decor items, candles, gift wrap, food, soft drinks and cough drops. There was also a reimbursement of nearly $800 for repairs on Klaus’ personal car.
“When the OSA investigators inquired about the circumstances surrounding the damages to the vehicle, the OSA was informed that the vehicle had been damaged while (Klaus was) driving on village business but no specific information or back-up documentation was provided,” the audit states.
The village’s response to the finding, saying it would seek reimbursement from Klaus for the money.
The audit also found problems with minutes and recordings of council workshops, including budget workshops, and auditors could not find evidence that a budget was approved by the council in the calendar years 2011 through 2017.
To correct this finding, village staff will be trained on taking and preserving minutes and record storage.
The council also should have approved or disapproved all mayoral appointments, dismissals or suspensions; determined salaries, fees and overtime and approved job classifications, descriptions and pay scales, according to the audit.
The council will now be notified on the first day of employment of new hires and a councilor will be present for all job interviews.
The audit also found occurrences of nepotism, in violation of the village’s personnel ordinance.
The village will create and adopt a waiver for current employees who are related by blood or marriage to another employee or member of the council to resolve the finding.
The audit also states the village will set up a financial oversight committee “made up of no more than two council persons, the mayor and vital staff to approve all payments on a weekly basis.”
The two councilors will alternate meeting to avoid a quorum and they will change every six months.
“It is my hope that the mayor and council can work collectively and with haste, in accordance with the responses and agreed upon criteria laid out to the OSA to resolve these issues,” Bruton said via email Tuesday.
The audit findings have been referred to the New Mexico Attorney General’s office for further investigation and action as deemed appropriate by that office.
The special audit can be found here: saonm.org/audit_reports/detail/11772