SEATTLE — One is a state senator with a background in conducting audits. The other runs one of Washington’s biggest county governments.
So which kind of experience is more important in the Washington state auditor’s race between Republican Sen. Mark Miloscia and Democratic Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy?
Not necessarily either, says Brian Sonntag, who ran the auditor’s office for 20 years before retiring in 2013.
“The most important element is that populist nature, that connection with citizens, the watching out for the public dollar,” Sonntag said. “If an agency is big enough to have a good management structure in place, you don’t have to reinvent auditing and you don’t have to reinvent management. You need to be able to work with the team that exists with that eye on communicating with citizens.”
The auditor is the elected official charged with rooting out waste and fraud in government operations. It employs about 350 people around the state and is tasked with ensuring governments from sewer districts to statewide agencies have adequate financial controls and abide by applicable laws and their own policies. The office conducts about 2,400 audits a year and helps train officials on how they can improve their operations — for example, by helping county planning departments streamline their rules so they can issue building permits more quickly.
It also conducts “performance audits,” which evaluate the effectiveness of government activities.
Both McCarthy and Miloscia have said a key priority is erasing the pall cast over the office by Auditor Troy Kelley’s federal fraud indictment in early 2015. Kelley, a Democrat from Tacoma, was accused of keeping $3 million he should have refunded to customers of his former real-estate services business about a decade ago, before he was elected.
Kelley took a leave of absence, insisted on his innocence, and rejected calls for his resignation from Republicans and Democrats alike. He returned to work last December. A federal jury deadlocked on the main charges against him in the spring, and he decided not to seek re-election. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Seattle said it will try him again next year.
Beyond the notion of restoring confidence in the office, however, the candidates have different visions for how they’d run it.
Over the past three decades, McCarthy has been a Tacoma school board member, deputy county auditor, elected county auditor and finally county executive. She says she has a deep understanding of how local governments work, one that would give her good perspective as the office plumbs the operations of agencies around the state.
Miloscia, a Democrat-turned-Republican, served seven terms in the state House of Representatives before his election in 2014 to the Senate, where he chairs the Accountability and Reform Committee. A former B-52 pilot, he says he gained crucial experience by auditing Boeing programs for the Air Force.
Miloscia won the August primary with 37 percent of the vote, but the two Democrats in the race — McCarthy and Seattle attorney Jeff Sprung — together collected 53 percent.
Since then, Miloscia has run an aggressive campaign that stressed his belief in the power of audits to improve government and his harsh criticism of what he sees as waste and incompetence. He held a news conference in Seattle to criticize the city’s approach to homelessness, saying it needs “adult supervision” and doesn’t know whether the millions of dollars it’s spending are doing any good.
He also criticized King County’s proposal to create safe injection sites where heroin addicts can use drugs under medical supervision, an approach public health advocates say will save lives. In an interview, Miloscia called it an outrage and suggested that if elected he might audit Seattle’s approach to drug enforcement.
“We need somebody in the State Auditor’s Office who’s going to focus on accountability and eliminating waste in government and solving the real problems we face, homelessness, dysfunctional mental health systems, improving transit agencies, all those issues,” he said.
McCarthy calls such comments a distraction — such performance audits make up a small fraction of the office’s work — and says they understate the complexity of problems like homelessness, which cities and counties around the country are trying to combat with limited resources.
“I was very, not just disappointed, but pretty upset Sen. Miloscia would use a backdrop of homeless people and a press conference to say that performance audits are going to eradicate homelessness,” she said. “It’s just a ludicrous statement. … Performance audits could potentially help with some of those issues, but it’s no silver bullet.”
McCarthy concedes that experience in auditing might be a bonus for a state auditor, but says what the office really needs is someone who can lead a large agency: “You don’t need a pilot to run Alaska Airlines.”
Miloscia’s counter: “If that’s the case, by her definition she could go now manage the Seahawks or be attorney general.”
McCarthy has raised about $136,000 to Miloscia’s $127,000.
For his part, Sonntag says he’s not endorsing either, after Sprung, the candidate he supported, failed to make it out of the primary.