Sunday, December 30, 2007

Citizens and Performance Scrutiny

With the passage of ballot Initiative-900, Washington State is attempting to bring citizens back into the government spending decision-making loop.

I-900 directs the state auditor to conduct performance audits of state and local government agencies and entities, including local school districts. The audits will include reviews of the economy, efficiency and effectiveness of each agency’s policies, management, fiscal affairs and operations. To fund the audits, 0.16% of the state’s portion of sales and use tax collections are placed in a new state treasury account and used only for performance audits.

On December 20th, Brian Sonntag, WA State Auditor, released the results of an audit completed at the Port of Seattle. Like the Port of Bellingham, the Port of Seattle is a government that lacks real independent oversight and fosters a culture in which secrecy, good old boy deals, and stonewalling have become common place. The focus of the report, which examines how the Port manages capitol projects (like the construction of the third SEATAC runway), is offered in a summary of major findings by the audit:

1. Port Construction management lacks controls and accountability.
2. The Port circumvents competition requirements in violation of its own policies and sometimes in violation of the law.
3. Port Policies and Port management’s interpretations of its policies result in a lack of transparency and thwart Commission oversight of construction management activities.
4. Port Construction management records are incomplete and disorganized.
5. The Port fails to enforce basic contract requirements, resulting in delays, extra costs and an inability to defend against claims.
6. Port construction management is vulnerable to fraud, waste and abuse.

During the audit, the Port of Seattle held true to its reputation for being difficult to penetrate. Over the years, reporters, citizen activists and even Port Commissioners have had a difficult time getting a look inside the Port’s inner workings. But one of the most shocking aspects of the report is the Port's refusal to cooperate with the state auditor during the audit. According to the report, Port personnel altered audit evidence and impeded the auditor's access to information during the audit process. So much for the Port of Seattle's commitment to open, transparent government.

In response to the Port's bad behavior, the Auditor’s office states: “we do not believe the scope limitations presented by the Port undermined the validity of the audit findings, conclusions or recommendations. However, conditions noted in the report may be more serious than reported, and there may be additional findings that the audit firm was unable to discover, develop and report.” On the up side, the audit may bring to light the Port’s cultural and management issues and the public may take renewed interest in how their tax dollars are being spent.

How do we know if Performance Audit’s are working? We review the Auditor's 2007 Performance Audit results:


Port of Seattle --------- $97 million------------------------ $785,940
Dept of Trans---------- $96.9 million over 5 yrs----------- $551,035
Dept of Trans---------- $3 billion over 5 yrs---------------$1.6 million
(Traffic Congestion)
Sound Transit Link----- $5.1 million over 5 yrs-------------$557,759
Educational Services----$25.3 million over 5 yrs -----------$1.7 million
Districts (K-12)
Dept of Trans-----------$50.2 million over 5 yrs -----------$947,682
WA ST Motor Pool------$2.3 million over 5 yrs-------------$255,285

Adherence to the auditing process put forward by I-900 may rebuild the public’s confidence in government. Many have argued that citizens have checked out of the political process because they have been effectively blocked by government from weighing in on the issues, both large and small. By and large, the citizens of this state want government to be accountable, open and transparent.

A review of the first round of reports tells us that the use of independent audits can keep government accountable to the citizens it serves. Finally, citizens have an adequately funded, independent audit system that is not political, and therefore not compromised from the outset.

A big thank you to State Auditor Brian Sonntag, who involved citizens at many key junctures while designing the audit process. It is apparent that Sonntag takes his responsibilities seriously. His unwavering commitment to fullfilling the goals of the citizens of Washington is the determining factor in the future success of performance audits; a tool for increasing government accountability and reducing government waste.

What’s next? The Auditor’s office is in the process of setting up audits in the area of economic vitality and natural resources, and overall government efficiency and effectiveness. Eventually, the auditor will conduct Performance Audits for the City of Bellingham, Port of Bellingham and Whatcom County. It will be interesting to see if our community is more or less transparent than other governments.

Personally, I hope the audits are expanded to include a performance audit of toxic clean up programs, like the Whatcom Waterway. Is capping toxic contaminants a more cost effective method for controlling contaminants than a thorough clean up? Perhaps the answer to my question can be found in the results of an independent audit.

The Washington State Auditor Performance Reports can be found at this link:

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Flammable Ice

Japan has joined Canada and the United States in test drilling for methane in the Pacific Ocean. If successful, the gas drilling project could help Japan reduce its 23.3 billion natural gas import bill. Commercial production of methane becomes economically viable when the price of oil hits $54 dollars a barrel. Billions of tons of methane hydrate, frozen chunks of chemical-laced water, lie buried some 3,000 feet below the ocean.

Scientists believe that the world’s climate was catastrophically changed when volcanoes melted natural gas (methane hydrate) frozen in the seabed. This massive release of methane is believed to be the contributing factor that led to the extinction of the dinasaurs.

What are the risks? Ryo Matsumoto, a University of Tokyo scientist tells us that drilling for methane in the ocean could disturb the seabed and trigger an uncontrolled release of methane. Drilling could also cause massive underwater landslides. Scientists have theorized that underwater landslides triggered by volcanoes 50 million years ago may have resulted in a massive release of methane contributing to a global warming that lasted tens of thousands of years.

Japanese engineers have found enough “flammable ice” to meet Japan’s gas demand for the next 14 years. The frozen methane is located in the Nankai Trough, 30 miles off the cost of the main island, Honshu. The trick is to extract it without harming the environment. Jogmec, the Japanese state controlled Oil, Gas and Metals Corporation is studying test production in Canada’s permafrost region to determine how methane can be tapped for mass production. To date, the most efficient method is “depressurizing” which requires deep bore holes to be drilled down into the ice sheets. Pressure within the bore is reduced by a pump that separates methane from water. Conventional drilling techniques will not be used for methane exploitation. The two governments have completed the first round of tests, but will not release results, due in part to a confidentiality agreement signed by both nations.

But a bigger worry may be the 2006 discovery that methane gas bubbles are already rising from the ocean floor in the Sea of Japan, which indicates that the underwater ice may already be melting. The natural release of methane can also contribute significantly to global warming.

Additional information about "flammable ice" can be found at the sites listed below:

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Green Republicans

No, the phrase is not an oxymoron. There really are green Republicans.

Perhaps I sound idealistic because it’s obvious to most of us that some form of a “vacuum” exists between the different extremes of the Republican Party. On one side are Republicans like Teddy Roosevelt, Dan Evans, Ralph Munro or John McCain who are well known for promoting “conservation” as a Republican value. On the other side, we have Republicans like Tom Delay, George Bush and Dick Cheney who's behavior sometimes makes it difficult for us to put these two words together.

It seems a pity that many Republicans go apoplectic against those that they perceive as opposing their point of view, and who’s loathing of environmentalists and conservationism is worn like a badge of honor. Clean water, land, air and cities are a benefit to us all.

Last February, the Washington State Senate Republicans adopted an initiative to promote, sustain and protect the environment-while promoting energy independence and economic development.

In a press release dated February 7, 2007, the Senate Republicans tell us that it’s in everyone’s best interests to have a clean, healthy environment. In the initiative, Republican Senators outlined the following goals that promote alternative fuels, reduce carbon dioxide emissions and also encourages hydropower and nuclear power as clean energy sources:

Increase growth in state renewable fuels
Develop multipurpose water storage
Promote smart grid technology
Promote hydropower
Research the ability of Washington’s hydropower system

Address the impact of diminishing snow pack
Promote Healthy forests
Accelerate healthy forest operations
Encourage the growth of trees
Turn forest thinning into renewable fuels
Explore nuclear power
Accelerate hydropower production from wave and tidal energy
Attract “green business” companies

Educate and encourage consumers to use green energy

Promote wind power
Promote Odessa Aquifer restoration.
Promote the use of clean alternative fuel

While I do not agree with all of the initiatives put forward by the Republican Caucus, I do believe that many of the initiatives are a step in the right direction.
Perhaps I’m being overly optimistic in hoping that a Republican spokesman will emerge from our current crop of elected state officials. But it does seem a pity that Republicans continue to be viewed negatively by the public, when many have something good to offer.

I think its tiresome how republicans have allowed themselves to be backed into a corner while the Democrats control the debate on an issue that remains at the top of the list for many who live in the Puget Sound region.

After all, isn’t a clean, healthy environment a benefit to us all?

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

New Twist on Washington Organ Donations

Are you an organ donor in the state of Washington? (Do you have a little “heart” on your Driver’s License)?

If so, a King County Judge has ruled that you, along with 2.6 million other drivers in Washington; have given consent to allow local government to harvest and sell your body organs, skin and bone to medical research facilities for a profit. How on earth did this happen? The judge ruled, in a recent lawsuit, that driver's licenses bearing a donation “heart” allow the county to sell or donate body parts to science as well as allowing organs to be transplanted into a living person. Family members are outraged that body organs are being harvested and sold, but apparently do not have the legal authority to stop someone from harvesting a loved one's body parts.

Earlier in the year, KIRO TV reported that the King County Medical Examiner’s Office has been harvesting brains from the corpses of mentally ill clients, selling the brains to research facilities and quietly pocketing the money. The investigators tell us that the county has collected $1.5 million in revenue from the sale of brains.

This grizzly practice is taking place, even though family members have not signed consent forms allowing King County to harvest or sell the brains of loved ones.

The WA State Department of Licensing (DOL) site clearly states that your organ donation will save lives. But it does not inform donors that they are also consenting to donate their body to medical science or allowing their body organs to be sold to medical research facilities across the nation. Of course, some people may be perfectly comfortable with donating their bodies to science, but others may have strong feelings about having their body parts removed and sold to the highest bidder. I believe we should have a choice. Detailed documentation is listed under the investigations tab at KIRO News.

The DOL expressed surprise at the court's interpretation of the organ donor designation and has promised to change the way it recruits organ donors, but DOL workers are not trained to do much more than check a box indicating an individual’s willingness to be an organ donor.

If you want to opt out of donating your corpse to science, write the Living Legacy Registry at 11245 SE 6th Street, Suite 100, Bellevue, WA 98004. The only way to be removed from the list is to send a letter to the Living Legacy Registry removing your self from the list.

For those who want to remain organ donors, the Legacy has a web site where organ donors can specify how their organs will be used after death.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Sunshine Laws

A Washington State public audit of local public agencies found dozens of government employees who violated state law by witholding documents that the law says they must release.

The audit was the first of it's kind to examine Washington's Public Records Act, which defines a public record as any document prepared, owned, used or kept by a state or local agency. These records are presumed to be public, unless specifically exmpted from public disclosure by law.

In 1972, the Washington State Legislature declared, "Government isn't a secret business or club." It belongs to the citizens, and the public has every right to access records and participate in government proceedings.

Meanwhile, police and sheriff department's denied public requests for information regarding property crimes at least 55% of the time, while sheriff's departments refused about 16% of the requests to produce lists of sex offenders. Health Departments denied about 8% of the requests for restaurant inspections. The lack of compliance with public disclosure requests recently gained the state of Washington a "F" in a national study on compliance with sunshine laws.

Governor Gregoire told media that the lack of compliance is due to agencies being understaffed and untrained. That filling public disclosure requests is resource intense and costly.

State law says that in releasing the information, agencies are not allowed to ask the person making the request why they are requesting the information. If parts of a document are exempt from disclosure, the agency may black out only the information that can be exempted. It can not withhold the entire document if only certain parts are exempt.

What are your thoughts regarding "sunshine laws." Do you think that public disclosure laws place too heavy a burden on state agencies and law enforcement officials? Or, does the media and public have a right to access government documents?