Brian Sonntag leaves big shoes to fill as state auditor

The News TribuneJanuary 8, 2013 

State Auditor Brian Sonntag is a big guy, but that’s not the only reason his successor has his work cut out for him if he hopes to fill his shoes.

A Democrat from Pierce County, Sonntag has been at least as popular among Republicans because of the nonpartisan way he’s run his office the last 20 years and his laser-like focus on government accountability.

Elected to statewide office in 1992 after serving as Pierce County’s auditor, he easily won re-election four times. His departure next week – to become chief financial officer at the Tacoma Rescue Mission – is being met widely with regret, a testament to his evenhandedness in the job.

If anyone’s not sorry to see him go, it’s those state and local officials who have been stung by his office’s audits or who take issue with how much more accountable and accessible he feels they should be to the public.

He has chided state lawmakers, for instance, for not being as open in their proceedings as local officials are required to be, for not giving the public enough time to comment on legislation and for introducing title-only bills – blank legislation whose details can be filled in later. These are all areas that his successor, Troy Kelley, should continue to press.

Sonntag pushed for authorization to do performance audits, which the voters gave in 2005. Since then, his office has conducted 50 such audits and identified $1.3 billion in recommended savings and potential revenue; 86 percent of those recommendations have been implemented.

A key audit he cites was at the Port of Seattle in 2007, which found that almost $100 million had been misspent in contracting. The port has since implemented a contracting compliance office.

In his final report to the public, Sonntag makes a number of recommendations. Among them: modernize and centralize the state’s financial management, record all executive sessions and establish a mediation process to resolve public-records disputes. He warns against local governments’ proposed plans to increasingly limit access to public records.

As Sonntag’s report states, “Public officials must remember whose government it is. It is never wrong to open the doors and let the people in.”

Sonntag has long been a champion for the public, not only by advocating for increased access but also by holding government officials more accountable to the public they serve. He leaves his office stronger than he found it.

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