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More of our interview with departing State Auditor Brian Sonntag

Post by Jordan Schrader / The News Tribune on Jan. 7, 2013 at 12:01 am |
January 7, 2013 8:17 am
Brian Sonntag

Here are some Qs & As that didn’t make the print edition:

Q: Do you have any advice for legislators this year who are going to be trying to round up some new money for the schools (to fulfill a Supreme Court mandate)?

A: Those are tough calls, and I think the focus always has to be on that classroom. That’s where students and teachers meet to provide education. When we did our audit last year and took a look at school districts and identified just for the sake of discussion that a 1 percent savings statewide in administrative costs would put an additional thousand teachers in classrooms. I’m not saying coming up with that 1 percent additional cut is even easy, but it’s to provide perspective and information for those policymakers. When we took a look at privatizing liquor sales and distribution, we didn’t carve out a specific way to do it but rather, I think six different options we put on the table. Is that a priority of government to be selling and distributing alcohol, regardless of the price on it? I mean, government can tax it and regulate it very well, they’re good at doing those things.

Q: Have you had a chance to look at how it’s been going since it’s been privatized?

A: I think it’s going to go very well because that’s the market and it’ll take care of it. I don’t know how the state prioritizes being in businesses like liquor sales and gambling as priorities of state government.

Q: Are you disappointed you won’t be around to audit the marijuana licensing, regulation and taxing system?

A: (Laughing) No more disappointed missing that than I am anything else, I guess.

Q: Any audit that you’ve done that (made) the most meaningful change? Just in the performance audits that voters gave you the authority to do with Initiative 900, you’re already up to 50 performance audits and they identified $1.3 billion in savings and revenue, and I think you said 86 percent of those (recommendations) have been implemented partly or fully. What are the standouts?

A: I get asked this a lot, and the single standout to me — and there are a few, I guess, but — you look at the Port of Seattle performance audit we did several years ago. It was the first big one. We contracted this out, and this was a priority of ours because we’d been hearing from citizens and lawmakers and folks all around the state since I first took office that you’ve got to get in and do something deeper at the Port of Seattle. So with all the money and work that’s responsible up there, we did. We issued, after a considerable length of time an audit report that was pretty contentious. In fact there was a lot of pushback on the part of the port — the administration, as well as port commissioners, some lawmakers. They thought it was heavy handed, I guess. But what we were doing was laying out what we’d found. We found $95 or $96 million had been misspent in contracting. We made, I think, several dozen recommendations in that audit, with all that pushback and all the contention. And you fast forward a couple of years, and the port has implemented virtually everything we recommended including creating a contract compliance officer to oversee how that’s done up there where they broke down artificial walls where the port administration and the port commissioners now better communicate. Heck, they even record their executive sessions. It is such a different atmosphere at the port right now, and that’s what we were after, was change the culture, change the atmosphere, make sure that you put the citizens who you work for first. …

Q: How much of an effect has it had, lawmakers grabbing performance audit money? … It’s been millions of dollars.

A: It has, but I’d say no. We’ve proven to be very effective. We’ve managed ourselves very well. We’re part of state government too and we need to be able to set priorities and make some tough budget decisions. We were cut on the state budget by over 33 percent a couple of years ago. Well, rather than wring our hands and cry, here’s the budget that we have, let’s figure out what we’re going to do with this and go to work, and we have. I think we’ve remained very effective.

Q: Where have you made strides in cutting waste within your own agency? … There was (your) cell-phone audit (that found idle government cell phones) … Some of those cell phones were even right here in the (auditor’s) office … Where have you made strides and where do you still see opportunities for more?

A: There are always opportunities, and the whole state has to look at those opportunities, but one thing that we’ve done that kind of had a global impact in our office is: We don’t want to be redundant, so we want to make sure that all the different audit divisions in our office are in concert to some degree, that they’re able to work on some audits together, meaning our local audit team might be able to help a state team, who might be able to help our performance audit team and vice versa or whoever. But the better that they’re able to communicate and set our priorities, they can determine what not to work on but also what joint projects to work on. … It’s all about making sure that we remain as flexible as we can and communicate as well internally as we can. We’ve got about 350 employees and teams of auditors in … 14 different cities. And making sure that we communicate those kinds of things through our various teams and our audit managers, that’s been the critical part. And we do. I’ve been so doggone fortunate to work with people who are really smart and really care about public service. They care about the mission of this office as much as I do. I didn’t think in 40 years of public service I could find as good a fit as I did in this office. I mean, I worked with courts, elected county clerk when I was 26 years old and I loved every minute of that. Six years as county auditor, an office that my dad held, running elections. We brought in an automated, a new voting system and Pierce County was the last to change to an automated system. But we were able to do some things, and I enjoyed every bit of the 20 years in county government. But state auditor, the opportunity to address accountability and openness in every part of government in the state — we audit about 2,700 different units of government — to have some effect on how they provide services to the public, that’s a big deal, and that opportunity left us faced with a responsibility to make a difference, and I think we have.

Q: What advice do you have for Troy Kelley as he takes office as your successor?

A: My best advice to him, and I think it would be to anyone coming into public office or an office like this, would be to listen. One of the definitions of auditor in the dictionary refers to one who listens. It has to do with the auditory part of the word, and I think that’s critical, that you listen to the people who you work with, the people who you audit, those other public servants around the state, and you also listen to the public. And we engage citizens throughout the state unlike any other audit shop in the country. …

Q: It was a pretty brutal campaign this year to succeed you. Do you think that has any effect on Kelley coming in and having any baggage as he tries to do the job?

A: In my opinion, it’s too big a job to be lugging around any baggage. I think Troy’s capable of leading this office and doing this job and I think he’s inheriting a staff of professionals who are really good at what they do. When the campaign’s over, whatever it’s been like, and beginning on Jan. 16, it’s time to govern, and you’ve got to govern on behalf of all the people who you worked for, which are people who supported you and didn’t support you. They’re all paying you, and that’s who hired you. You know, in 1992 I won a pretty close election against Sam Reed. … We didn’t personalize it. We were both county auditors at the time, knew each other, ran for this office and we remain not just colleagues but good friends today. … In that campaign I was endorsed by only two newspapers, I was outspent seven to one, but when I was sworn into office it came time to govern, and I had a job to do, and the last thing I was going to do was focus on who didn’t like me or who didn’t think they liked me during that election. I had to go prove I could do the job I was hired to do. And that’s what campaigning is about too. You need to be able to present to voters a commitment to a sense of conviction about what you want to do and that you’re able to deliver on that, but then also I think, a sense of integrity in how you go about it.

Q: What do you expect to be doing as CFO of The Rescue Mission?

A: Well, certainly CFO implies that I’m going to have a lot of financial responsibilities, which ought to tie in nicely to what I’ve done here, overseeing expenditures and budgets and purchasing. But I think beyond that, it’s going to be being a part of the team at the mission that reaches out to the local communities, and helps to grow and expand from their current six facilities to areas like Puyallup or Gig Harbor, Lakewood, it’s beyond just Tacoma. And the need to help people is ever increasing, and the mission’s ability is outstanding. They serve a thousand meals a day. They’ve got, like I mentioned, six different facilities. They do drug and alcohol counseling. They really are in the life transformation business. Like they say, it starts with a meal — getting someone secure, providing a bed and a meal. But they’ve got so much going on to help people really change and redirect their lives, and that effects the broader community. I’m looking forward to being part of that effort. I think David Curry does a great job as their director.

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