In 34 years in public office, Brian Sonntag has been a witness to government at its best and worst.
Three weeks after being elected Pierce County clerk at age 26, Sonntag turned on the news to see federal agents handcuffing the county sheriff in a supermarket parking lot, one of a series of arrests in a wide-ranging extortion ring. The press was soon asking Sonntag’s office to release court records that were key elements of the racketeering case.
Sonntag became county auditor, then state auditor in Olympia, where he has spent two decades trying to root out government waste and improve practices. But he says he’s also seen examples of government agencies and employees doing their work well and with pride.
Politics is in Sonntag’s blood. It’s been a family business, starting with his father, Jack, who was county auditor, and then his brother Dick, who was a Tacoma city councilman and School Board member. And the clan has had a remarkable run; the lifetimes of most people alive today have included only a handful of years without a Sonntag in public office.
Sonntag hangs up his watchdog collar Jan. 16, handing it over to fellow Tacoma Democrat Troy Kelley and moving to a new job as chief financial officer of The Rescue Mission, which helps the hungry and homeless in the Tacoma area.
He has been known for his advocacy of open government, for a media-savvy strategy of promoting his findings, and for an independent streak that sometimes endeared him to Republicans more than Democrats. He’s also been known as a baseball fan and a weightlifter.
Q: I guess my first question should be: how much can you bench press?
A: Now? Now it’s about 265 pounds. My best was 350. That was in ’96.
Q: You’ve been here 20 years, and you know state government about as well as anyone from having looked at every agency and every little nook and cranny of state government. How would you say state government is doing, generally?
A: State government does pretty well. It’s full of hard-working, conscientious public employees who care about doing their jobs well. The other part of the question I guess from the auditor’s perspective is how good a job can state government do? How can it be even more accountable? And I guess getting to that is: How can we make sure government’s doors are as open as possible, that the processes are encouraging to citizens for their involvement, that they can see and touch what’s going on, and that government’s not a spectator sport — that people are allowed and encouraged to get involved and participate.
Q: What was the worst (the most flagrant abuse your auditors caught)?
A: There were a few different degrees of “worst.” There was one recently, like within the last year and a half, of a woman in a county treasurer’s office who had been stealing money, and now she’s been sentenced to prison. In fact, we were given an award this last summer from the national state auditors’ association for our investigative work on this fraud. But she was stealing money for years, had several different systems in place, stole hundreds of thousands of dollars.
And on the other end of, I guess, the size, when I first got into office, the first year, there was a cheerleader adviser, and she had spent the whole summer with her cheerleading squad, doing fundraising — car washes, bake sales, whatever it might be — to raise money for new cheerleader uniforms. And come September, start of the school year, the cheerleader adviser is not there, the cheerleading squad money is not there, and the new uniforms are not there.
So again it’s a position of trust violated. So whether it’s a little bit of money or a lot of money, it’s the public’s money.
Q: Do you have a sense of whether there are some state agencies that are the poster child for doing it right?
A: State Patrol.
Q: Why State Patrol?
A: They’ve been really good to work with — I mean, constructive, proactive. I mean, if you identify anything you think they might want to address or work on, they do right away. Chief (John) Batiste, he’s as good as they come. There are other agencies, too, that we’ve worked with.
Q: Is there an agency, or more than one, that is really struggling right now?
A: DSHS (Department of Social and Health Services) is always going to be one you identify. And it’s not because of anything they or any one person does. That is so big and so complex, so service-delivery-oriented, it’s people in crisis, people in need and a whole lot of money. It’s always going to be problematic. So I don’t say that as tagging them as the problem, but it’s just the system. Department of Transportation’s going to be the same thing. Any time you get that: complex and decentralized services and a whole lot of money.
Q: What made you decide to endorse (Republican) Rob McKenna this year for governor? You’ve always had an independent streak, but that seemed like a pretty significant break with your party.
A: My endorsement and support of Rob had absolutely nothing to do with (Democratic Gov.-elect) Jay Inslee. I’ve known Jay; Jay’s a good guy and I wish him nothing but the best. I’ve worked for eight years with Rob as attorney general and we share some core values in public service. Certainly our joint efforts on open government issues, to see local governments record executive sessions, to see the Legislature do away with title-only bills, to open their processes and allow people to see what’s going on. Rob and I have worked really well together, and we’re good friends. And how do you not support a very good friend and a good colleague?
Q: Did you ever consider switching parties?
A: No. I’ve been a Democrat my whole life. My family has. I hold an office that should not even be a partisan office.
Q: You think they should make it nonpartisan, like OSPI (Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction)?
A: I think that would be a good thing. I think getting there would be awkward and messy and probably doesn’t matter. If you perform your duties and responsibilities in any of these administrative offices — secretary of state, treasurer, insurance commissioner, auditor — in a partisan way, it’s a real disservice to the public.
Q: When it comes to open government, do you think the Legislature will ever agree to put itself under some of the same restrictions that it puts local governments under? Right now they can go into caucus and they don’t have to do a lot of their business in front of the public, they have these kind of, like you mentioned, title-only bills that they can change at the last minute.
A: Your question is do I think they’ll change. I guess if you anticipate future behavior based on past behavior, no. But they absolutely should. The increasing distrust by citizens about their government or their government officials is not helped when they do these kinds of things. A title-only bill — how do you vote on a title-only bill? Some of that just makes no sense at all. When I watch how local governments operate, and you look at a city council, they can be partisan or nonpartisan, but they work on reaching consensus, not unanimity maybe, nor should they, but consensus. The Legislature seems to take intentional steps towards divisiveness. And I think they could eliminate some of that by opening their processes.
For more questions and answers with Brian Sonntag, go to blog.thenewstribune.com/politics.
Jordan Schrader: 360-786-1826