BERNICE — Residents of this Delaware County fishing community of 562 people said this week they hope prosecutors will take seriously their reports about illegal actions by elected officials after state Auditor and Inspector Gary Jones issued a report confirming many of their complaints.
The audit, which came in response to a petition by town residents, criticizes Bernice's board of trustees for issuing illegal fines in excess of $100,000, overcharging water customers, invalid zoning ordinances and numerous violations of the state's open meetings law, among other problems.
“We have people who turn their water off and shower at a state park,” Bernice resident Steve Miller said. “It's like a Third World country. We went to the auditor as an act of desperation.”
Bernice trustees discussed the audit at a recent meeting.
“There was no fraud, no corruption, no missing money,” said David Jones, the town's attorney.
Mayor Bill Raven apologized for some of the audit's findings, which suggested he sometimes acted beyond his authority.
“We didn't intentionally not comply with the law,” said David Dennis, a board trustee.
Connie Miller, a 21-year resident of Bernice, spoke out at the community meeting, imploring officials to clean up their act lest they give the Grand Lake town a bad name.
“Bernice is too good of a town to be a blight on the lake,” he said.
Steve Miller said he initially complained to Delaware County District Attorney Eddie Wyant's office in September 2010 about the fines, zoning ordinances and water billing problems.
“There has never been any action taken,” Miller said. “It wasn't until I went to the auditor's office that it got any attention.”
Some of the audit's findings, such as the open meeting violations, could constitute misdemeanor violations by town officials. Ben Loring, Wyant's first assistant district attorney, said the audit's findings are being investigated criminally.
“We've been looking at it for some time,” Loring said. “Every time we turn around, there are new allegations and new complaints. We are looking into all of those.”
Miller and several other Bernice residents led a petition drive to get Jones' office to perform an investigatory audit.