Petition seeks state audit of Joplin city government

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Sep. 25—A petition seeking a state audit of the city of Joplin has been filed with Missouri State Auditor Scott Fitzpatrick.

The petition filed by a grassroots organization, Joplin Citizens for Transparent & Honest Government, needs to contain at least 1,970 signatures of registered Joplin voters to trigger a state review of the city's handling of taxpayer money, said Trevor Fox, director of communications for the state auditor.

"They submitted more than the required amount, but we will not know an official total until the signature verification process is finished," Fox said in an email.

The auditor will send the petitions to county clerks in Jasper and Newton counties to verify the signatures as registered voters within the Joplin city limits.

The number of verified signatures needed to trigger an audit is based on the number of voters who cast ballots in the most recent election for governor.

Fox said the auditor's office will receive a report from the county clerks on the number of valid signatures after they are checked.

Brian Evans, a member of the grassroots group who has been helping with the petition drive, said organizers turned in 2,400 signatures to start. They have continued to collect as a precaution to try to make sure they have enough valid signatures and have just turned in 200 more.

According to the state documents, the organization requested the petitions Oct. 13, 2022, and must turn in enough valid signatures within a year of that date to require an audit.

If the effort is successful, the city will have to pay the audit costs. Fox said that audits of cities of similar size to Joplin have cost $200,000 to $250,000, and that was disclosed on the state form that residents sign to obtain the audit.

Even if the costs exceed the estimate, the city will be responsible for that total, according to the documents.

The state auditor will determine the scope of the audit. It will cover the most recently completed fiscal year at the time the petition signatures are verified and the audit is scheduled, according to the auditor's website.

Evans said he was told the state will conduct a performance audit, which means "they try to make sure the taxpayer money being safeguarded and whether there is fraud or corruption that needs to be looked at by other authorities." Auditors will determine whether taxpayer funds are appropriately managed, he said.

He has spoken at City Council meetings numerous times seeking more funding for police and firefighter wages and questioning financial transactions.

Evans is a schoolteacher who ran for a City Council seat in 2022 but came in fourth in a five-way race for three seats, edged out by 13 votes won by financial adviser Josh DeTar.

He said he sought the state audit after finding what he considered to be discrepancies in city financials.

Mayor Doug Lawson said the audit request resulted from "a few citizens who are convinced we're hiding" mismanagement or malfeasance.

"I'm not afraid of it, but it's going to cost a lot of money and cost our staff a lot of time," the mayor said.

"But it's the citizens' right," he said, "and we will certainly cooperate."