One Audit, Many (Political) Solutions

By Erica C. Barnett June 22, 2009

Candidates for King County Executive scrambled Monday to assign blame and suggest solutions for the latest financial debacle at King County, revealed by a state audit early this morning. In a nutshell, the audit revealed that the county failed to sufficiently oversee its capital expenditures, leading to millions of dollars in overruns on county construction projects. Additionally, the report found that the county does a poor job of tracking construction costs, keeping track of Metro fare revenues, and making sure construction projects are completed on time. In one case, state auditors stopped looking into the county's construction management program because the county couldn't provide access to the records they requested. "The county has no method to quickly or routinely identify and track all construction projects at the division, department, executive or County Council level," the report said.

County council member Larry Phillips was the first county executive candidate to respond, calling reporters this morning to announce legislation he introduced calling on interim KC exec Kurt Triplett to come up with improved business practices and new internal controls on county financial practices within 60 days. "I don't want to sit around and study this in a committee format; I want the executive to report to the auditor his findings and recommendations," Phillips told me. "It's action-oriented, not just sitting around endlessly in meetings"—a backhand swipe at his opponent and fellow county council member Dow Constantine, who has proposed reviving a county audit committee that was disbanded several years ago. "The audit committee was disbanded because it wasn't all that functional," Phillips says. "I assume I'll support resuming it—there's no harm in that—but I don't think it's as action-oriented as it needs to be."

Constantine defended his audit committee proposal, noting that oversight of county capital projects is the responsibility of the whole county, not just the executive branch. "We have the power of the purse on the council" he says. "It's our job to make sure the money's being spent properly." Constantine says that in contrast to Phillips—who, he says, "likes to take credit for things"—he has a long history of pushing for financial oversight and reform; he points to about a dozen proposals he has sponsored or cosponsored over the years that have strenghtened financial oversight and accountability at the council.

While Constantine and Phillips were arguing over who could do a better job of changing the county from within, the other three candidates took advantage of their outsider status. If the two current county employees on the ballot have done so much, their opponent, State Rep. Ross Hunter (D-48) says, why haven't things gotten better? "They've been on the council a combined total of a quarter of a century, and what have they done?" Hunter says. "It's nice that Larry wants to have a plan in 60 days, but he's had 16 years, and Dow's had seven." Hunter says the county needs to overhaul its antiquated computer system, which he says is "newer than computers, and older than the Metro merger" with the county in 1992. "We absolutely have to replace that computer system, because right now nobody has any idea what anything costs. There is no way to track why things went overboard if you don't measure it."

In a statement, executive candidate  and state Sen. Fred Jarrett (D-41) called Phillips' proposal "too little too late" and said the audit "paints a very disturbing picture of King County government." And Susan Hutchison, the former KIRO anchor and lone Republican in the race, said the audit pointed to the need for new leadership at the county, saying the county "needs to be drastically overhauled."
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