THE oldest question in government is who watches the watchmen. In Washington, part of that job has been ably done for 20 years by State Auditor Brian Sonntag, who now leaves office.
The notably nonpartisan Democrat — he endorsed Rob McKenna for governor — has run the auditor’s office in a nonpartisan way. Sonntag’s even-handedness has been a crucial reason for his success.
A major change in Sonntag’s time in office was the authority to do performance audits, which examine not only the irregularities of compliance and bookkeeping but also the institutional structure and management.
In partisan hands, the power to ask such questions can be starkly political, and the inclination of legislators is not to allow it. The Legislature didn’t allow performance audits; it was the voters, who in 2005 approved them in Initiative 900. But the voters would not have given such power to the auditor if Sonntag had not promoted the idea for years and convinced people he deserved to have it.
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Most notable among performance audits was one of the Port of Seattle in 2007 that led to strong reforms.
Sonntag has also used the audit power to highlight questions of public policy. In March 2011, an audit found that taxpayers might save as much as $90 million a year if health benefits for public-school employees were made uniform. That idea is a good one, and should be on the table in the next session of the Legislature.
Sonntag has been a strong voice for open government. He has urged the Legislature to pass a constitutional amendment forbidding title-only bills and requiring that bills be introduced 72 hours before a public hearing, so the people can be informed of them.
Sonntag is being replaced by former state Rep. Troy Kelley, who beat his Republican opponent, James Watkins, in a nasty fight that was not becoming of the office.
Kelley does have the credentials to do the job, but Sonntag’s legacy as the state’s fair, firm and friendly auditor should weigh heavily on him.