Offering frequent news and analysis from the majestic Evergreen State and beyond, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

State Auditor Brian Sonntag wasting resources picking on Sound Transit

Back in 2005, when Tim Eyman was pitching Initiative 900, NPI's Permanent Defense warned that the scheme (in addition to being redundant) would give the state auditor's office too much power. We were especially critical of the provision that allows municipal governments to be targeted for performance reviews at will.

Now that the state auditor has decided to force Sound Transit to undergo another audit, it's clear that the powers granted by Initiative 900 are being abused:

The work will begin after the Auditor's Office hires a consultant, [spokeswoman Mindy Chambers] said. The Auditor's Office has conducted 10 performance audits of public agencies since 2006, after a voter-approved initiative directed them to be performed.

They have included a $1.7 million audit of educational service districts and a $1.6 million audit of the state Transportation Department's congestion-management programs, also last year.
Only ten audits of public agencies have been conducted since 2006, and already Sound Transit is in for its second. What's up with that?

"We've had a lot of questions about the long-term financial viability, what's it going to take to sustain this over the long term, what's the ridership going to look like, what are the fares going to look like," said Mindy Chambers, a spokeswoman for the state Auditor's Office, adding that her office gets more questions about the Seattle-based agency "than pretty much anything else."
Mindy, have you guys even contemplated referring all of the people who contact your office about Sound Transit to...Sound Transit? Many of the questions you cited are easily answered without a state report card.

Indeed, Sound Transit's mission is to plan long term and improve mobility in Puget Sound by building a regional transportation system.

Undoubtedly Tim Eyman is thrilled, but this is ridiculous. Sound Transit is one of the best managed public agencies in the state, not to mention one of the most scrutinized. As the agency proudly notes on its website:

  • Sound Transit has received nine straight years of clean financial audits from the state of Washington (as opposed to performance audits, which are more complex and costly to conduct).
  • The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) conducts quarterly reviews of the agency (Link light rail is partially funded by the United States).
  • Sound Transit contracts with a national accounting firm to conduct annual financial audits. In addition, peer reviews of project and financial controls are conducted on an ongoing basis.
  • A state performance audit, released in fall 2007, recognized the strides Sound Transit has made since its start in 1996 (this was Sonntag's first audit).
  • Regular independent audits conducted by Lloyd’s Registry Quality Assurance ensure that the agency complies with the terms of its ISO 14001 certification, international recognition of how ST manages its environmental program.
We long ago reached the point where further audits are just wasting resources. Seattle P-I reader husky fan cryptically observes what a fool's errand this all is:

When is there going to be a performance audit of the state auditor? It seems like he's wasting millions on these transportation related performance audits that are deeply flawed and chiefly designed to score political points and publicity for the state auditor.

Have any of these transportation audits by Brian Sonntag actually saved any money or made transportation any better? Or do they just keep him in the news at re-election time and keep the money flowing to the same consultants in his stable?
There's nothing wrong with oversight and accountability - those are the hallmarks of open government - but turning over management of our public agencies to private accountants is not a good idea. Sound Transit chief executive Joni Earl doesn't need hired investigators looking over her shoulder every other minute.

Furthermore, the reports produced by the state auditor cost money. This second audit of Sound Transit is projected to cost at least a million dollars. It's akin to the Legislature ordering the production of perennial studies about the same idea or issue as a result of its inability to actually pass a law.

Nobody seems to care much for that practice and Sonntag's obsession with transportation is equally unhelpful.

It's time for the Legislature to amend Initiative 900 and send a strong signal to the state auditor to direct his resources where they're actually needed and stop picking on agencies like Sound Transit that have repeatedly and consistently shown responsiveness to the public.


Blogger Michael said...

Andrew, you are insane. This column shows that you know NOTHING about what Sonntag's office does.

Sonntag's office goes through a peer review process every two or three years, and that now includes performance audits. And Sonntag doesn't have the authority to make government agencies adopt audit recommendations. The State Auditor's office is a reporting agency, not an enforcement agency. So your comment that this is about keeping him in the news for election time is STUPID. Besides, he's a Democrat. Did you think he was a Republican??? Your attacks show that you care nothing about holding government accountable. You would prefer the status quo.

Transportation is not "Sonntag's obsession" as you say. The whole performance audit process began after the initiative was passed by holding focus groups of citizens that told Sonntag's office what their concerns were. Of course, you are going to say that you were not invited to any focus groups. Well, tough. Neither was I but I'm not bitter about it.

You apparently are ignorant about the fact that state and local governments in Washington gets an annual audit by Sonntag's office. Some governments only get audited every two or three years. Sound Transit is included in that list but only gets an "accountability and legal compliance" audit. Instead, they WASTE about $300,000 on a private firm that charges in excess of $300/hr for a partner to review the work of their audit staff for a financial statement audit.

The auditor is not abusing the power given to the office as a result of I-900. He's carrying out the requirements of the initiative (would you prefer that he ignore the will of the voters??) Instead, local governments are wasting millions on trying to lobby Olympia to amend the initiative so that it is essentially useless because they do not like to have their inner workings exposed to the public that provides their revenue through the payment of taxes. And, unlike their annual audits, agencies do not have to pay for these performance audits. The funds that pay for this come from an EXISTING revenue source: the sales tax. And there was no increase to this source, just a re-direction of existing cash flows.

So stop whining! And go learn about the process before you start criticizing it!

May 26, 2008 4:52 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

Sonntag's first performance audit was NOT of Sound Transit. Get your facts straight.

May 26, 2008 4:53 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home