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:

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