Public Administrator Responds To Criticism

By: 
Joyce Coates
Enterprise Staff
Lori Dunkin, public administrator, subject to the same scrutiny and criticism as any other public official, has come under both in the past several months.  
In April last year, based on a complaint by a relative of a person under her conservatorship, the State Auditor came to investigate. The Enterprise published the audit report’s findings as part of an interview with Dunkin on the subject. She spent the next several months working to make the recommended corrections.
On November 22, 2017, former local mail carrier Rodney Mercer was arrested by the Warsaw Police on an outstanding warrant and remains incarcerated. Criminal charges are pending on matters which are scheduled in court this month.
Dunkin was called to court on Thanksgiving Eve to be appointed as guardian for Mercer, who was made a ward of the court at that time; with guardian ad litem also appointed. 
Friends of Mercer, pointing to the 2017 audit report, claim that Dunkin is mishandling his case. Talking about the experience of being audited, she said “It was a learning experience that opened my eyes, and at first made me feel like nothing is ever good enough. But in the end, it worked out for the better.” 
As a matter of fact, on November 21, 2017, the day before his arrest and the day Dunkin was appointed as Mercer’s guardian, the State Auditor published the Follow-Up Report on Audit Findings - Benton County Public Administrator’s Office that showed eight corrective recommendations had been implemented and two were in progress (https://app.auditor.mo.gov).  
Thus, anyone concerned about findings of the original report who have not read the follow up report can do so and know that the issues have been resolved. To understand more about the public administrator’s role and the regulations that govern how she carries out her responsibilities may also be helpful. 
Elizabeth L. (“Lori”) Dunkin was first appointed in January 2011 to complete the term that began in 2008. She ran unopposed and was elected to a four-year term in 2012, and again in 2016. 
Qualifications for the position, per RSMO Section 473.730.1-.3, are: 
• at least twenty-one years of age and a resident of the state of Missouri and the county in which he or she is a candidate for at least one year prior to the date of the general election 
• a registered voter and 
• current in the payment of all personal and business taxes; and 
• shall take the oath required by the constitution, and post bond to the state of Missouri in a sum not less than ten thousand dollars, with two or more securities.
Responsibilities, summarized at http://www.bentoncomo.com, conform to the statute above: 
• to serve as guardian or conservator for Benton County residents proven to need such help; 
• to report to the court annually about the care and administration of each estate; 
• to be appointed personal representative of a decedent’s estate where no will was made, including such duties as cleaning out a home or holding an auction; and 
• to work with the Benton County Division of Senior Services, Social Security, and Division of Family Services to locate resources for the people for whom she has been appointed. 
Guardianship is the legal process that determines a person’s ability to make decisions regarding personal affairs. Conservatorship is similar but involves the ability to handle personal finances (www.moaging.com).
As set out in Section 473.730.2, “The county shall defend and indemnify the public administrator against any alleged breach of duty, provided that any such alleged breach of duty arose out of an act or omission occurring within the scope of duty or employment.”
The public administrator receives a salary, per RSMo. Section 473.730.3, paid from the county budget, and receives no other fees or compensation for services. County public administrators must be on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week to respond to any issues that may arise with a client. She keeps in contact with hospitals, health-care facilities, hospices, law offices and other agencies on behalf of clients.
As public administrator Dunkin does not, in fact she cannot by law, solicit for clients.  Dunkin’s caseload consists of cases assigned to her by the court. An attorney files a petition with the court; a judge, on advice of the department of mental health, or senior services, or a doctor, as set out in the petition, determines that a guardian or conservator is required. 
The court notifies Dunkin to appear in circuit court, where she is appointed as guardian or conservator. At the same time, the court appoints an attorney to serve as guardian ad litem when minor children, or impaired or incapacitated adults are involved.
Once assigned, Dunkin has 30 days within which to complete an inventory of the individual’s property, including cash, stocks, bonds, certificates of deposit, personal and real property, and all other assets and income. The ease or complexity in locating assets depends on the circumstances, yet every effort must be made to locate property that could be situated anywhere in or out of the county or state. 
Dunkin makes lists all property located and submits it to the attorney who prepares a document for signature and presentation to the court. 
She was notified of three new cases to be assigned to her this week that will bring her caseload to about 80 files. Officially, her clients are “wards of the court,” but Dunkin refers to them as “my people” who she cares about personally.  
Some of her cases are more complicated than others, especially in matters where a ward’s mental health is at issue.
“The mental health system is seriously broken,” Dunkin said, in that people who need help often figure out how to get around the system; they know what to say or not say. Also, when the court orders evaluations and procedures, the best interests of individuals under guardianship are not met when health care workers overlook them, or do not completely carry them out. 
When mental health placements are made, it is by recommendation of healthcare officials, Dunkin has no part in those decisions. 
All the correspondence she receives about guardianship or conservatorship cases is by law part of the public record, and reviewed by the attorney for the public administrator. 
Members of the public can rightfully file complaints against any public official for alleged ethics violations based on fact or law, which are investigated by the Missouri Ethics Commission (RSMO 105.957).  Claims must be submitted on a signed and notarized document. However, frivolous complaints that falsely put a public official in bad light will be dismissed, and may result in assessment of actual and compensatory damages to the complainant.
 

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