There are a lot of Seattle Times editorial board endorsements to fisk for their stupid or misleading reasoning, but the one for state auditor is particular emblematic of the fundamental problem with the politically lucrative endorsement industry as a whole.
The editors complain that "neither candidate is up to the task of rooting out waste and fraud," and that they were "given a disappointing choice between two flawed candidates," Democrat Troy Kelley and Republican James Watkins. But... um... out of a relatively well qualified four-man field, these were the two candidates who the Seattle Times endorsed in the primary!
Much has changed since The Times editorial board named Kelley and Watkins in July as the clear-cut standouts in a crowded primary field. What followed was a series of mudslinging distortions brought on by Watkins’ campaign against the Democrat. Kelley, an attorney, failed to defend himself against the attacks.
In the end, the tone of Watkins’ accusations is what tipped the scales in Kelley’s favor.
No, nothing has changed since the Seattle Times endorsed Kelley and Watkins in July. Watkins was always a mud-slinging far-right-wing Tea Bagger. That's how he ran his two campaigns for Congress, so why should anybody expect him to run his auditor campaign any differently? He was also clearly the least qualified of the four primary candidates, the other three of whom were all sitting legislators with valuable experience on the crucial Joint Legislative Audit & Review Committee.
But Watkins is a Republican while the other candidates were all Democrats, and so that's how he snagged the paper's primary endorsement.
As for Kelley, he wasn't our choice in the primary (to be fair, he couldn't make the SECB interview, so he didn't have a fighting chance) but he certainly has the professional experience to recommend him for the job. That hasn't changed since July. Neither have the allegations raised in a couple of lawsuits against him. They were public record in July too, so if the Seattle Times editorial board wasn't aware of them, then they weren't doing their job.
No, the editors weren't led astray by the candidates, but rather by the distorted partisan lens in which they view the auditor's job. The editors lament that "neither candidate is up to the task of rooting out waste and fraud," a complaint that is clearly rooted in the belief that state and local government is absolutely rife with waste and fraud. They were looking for an auditor with an agenda. But that's not the auditor's job.
Conducting financial audits—the primary role of the state auditor—is pretty cut and dry. There are established standards for how one keeps the books, and established standards for how one audits them. If the numbers don't add up, or the accounting practices are improper or inadequate, any competent, trustworthy financial audit will find it. That's the state auditor's main job: hiring and managing competent, trustworthy auditors. There should be nothing partisan or political about it.
But performance audits are another beast entirely. These are quality control and efficiency reviews intended to find new cost savings and uncover unproductive practices. To be conducted properly, a performance audit requires auditors specialized in the field being audited—for example, a performance audit of the ferry system and a performance audit of a school district require two different skill sets. And while there are standard practices for conducting a performance audit, the job is a lot more complicated than whether two columns of numbers add up. The goal is to find more efficient ways of delivering existing government services, or to uncover those services that can't be justified at all.
But perhaps the most important difference between a financial audit and a performance audit is that to be successful, the latter requires the full cooperation and buy-in of the workers being audited. Performance audits don't work well when they are perceived to be prosecutorial and adversarial. The most productive performance audits engage those being audited in uncovering new cost savings; after all, nobody knows the job better than those performing it. And simply recommending potential cost savings doesn't make them a reality. When you use a performance to publicly humiliate an agency and its employees—as retiring auditor Brian Sonntag too often did—it becomes harder for the agency to work up the enthusiasm to fully implement the recommendations. It also becomes harder for other agencies to enthusiastically participate in future audits. That's human nature.
The Seattle Times editorial board started from the assumption that government agencies are filled with slackers and crooks, and so they endorsed the two auditor candidates they believed would prosecute the office's responsibilities most aggressively. They got the general election choice they asked for. So, you know, quit your whining.
You wouldn't always know it from the style in which we write our SECB endorsements, but the thing I'm most proud of about our endorsements is the effort we put into making them. We heard from a number of candidates for down-ticket statewide races—particularly from those in the auditor's race—that The Stranger's was the most informed, engaging, and policy-oriented editorial endorsement interview they had. That for me is the biggest compliment we could receive coming out of an interview.
If you don't care to educate yourself about the fundamental differences between a financial audit and a performance audit, then you don't deserve the privilege of endorsing in this race.
No doubt members of the other newspaper editorial boards take their jobs more solemnly. But when our endorsements come out tomorrow, rest assured that nobody takes its job more seriously than the SECB.