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Government watchdog cut his teeth in Pierce County

3:27 pm June 6th, 2012

PAT JENKINS

Dispatch editor

Government audits have been in the news and not in the news lately. The latter is preferred by those on the receiving end of the reports on public financial affairs, because no news is good news.

The state auditor recently gave clean bills of health to the Eatonville and Bethel school districts and to Graham Fire and Rescue. This might be the first you’ve heard about them, since good audit results, while obviously important, rarely are mentioned outside of the agencies that get them. It’s the same reason you don’t see news reports that there was no major crime yesterday. It takes wrongdoing or at least some sort of stumble for an audit to make headlines.

Fitting the something-to-talk-about criteria was the recent rap on the knuckles that the town of Eatonville received from the state auditor over the handling of money donated by citizens for the town’s Bud Blancher Trail project. The auditor pointed out that the town’s use of some of those funds to cover other expenses, while understandable given the town’s maxed-out budget, isn’t the best practice. The auditor also urged town officials to improve its financial situation (as if that hadn’t occurred to the Town Council and mayor). More recently, the auditor is reviewing the reported misuse of town funds that led to the firing of the town clerk.

Just like you seldom hear of the auditor’s work except when it involves bad grades of government fiscal processes, rare is the person who can think of the name of the state auditor or pays much attention to the election race every four years to fill what arguably is one of the most influential (in a quiet way) positions in state government.

If you know that Brian Sonntag is the current auditor, congratulations. And if you also know that he is retiring rather than running for re-election this fall, and you’re a voter, you’re someone the gaggle of would-be replacements care about very much.

Sonntag, whose 40-year career in public service began in Pierce County, has been invincible as a candidate. Seizing the opportunity to run for auditor without Sonntag standing in the way are three Democrats who are leaving the Legislature – state Reps. Mark Miloscia and Troy Kelley and state Sen. Craig Pridemore – and one Republican, business consultant James Watkins. I’m not backing one personally or making an endorsement for The Dispatch. But I will say that Miloscia is someone to watch. I knew him while I was editor of a newspaper in Federal Way, where he lives, and I witnessed firsthand his popuularity with voters. They seem to respect him for being an earnest, outspoken advocate for government efficiency, he does nothing to alienate people, and he’s a bulldog on the campaign trail. And he’s had his eye on being state auditor for a long time.

Whoever takes Sonntag’s place will be hard-pressed to fill his shoes. He has been an apolitical, rock-solid executor of the auditor’s role as champion of the taxpayers and open, by-the-book government. He’s upbeat by nature but serious about the work. No one’s better-suited for the job.

Sonntag was a 26-year-old political manchild when he was elected Pierce County clerk. I first met and got to know him during his eight years in that post, while I was a reporter covering county government. He later was elected to two terms as county auditor, an office once held by his father. The county-level experience and respect he earned was the springboard to his election in 1992 as state auditor. He was re-elected four times. Last September, he announced 20 years in the office was enough and he wouldn’t run again this year.

It’s not just voters who’ve admired Sonntag. The

Washington Coalition for Open Government, of which he’s a board member, the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association (The Dispatch is a member), and the Seattle Municipal League have given him some of their highest awards for his advocacy of open government and efforts to improve the operations of local government.

Officials at Eatonville’s Town Hall and other local governments will also confirm that Sonntag and his staff know what they’re doing.

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