State Auditor Pat McCarthy: Just like big cities, small towns need public accountability

Aug 7, 2023

This op-ed by State Auditor Pat McCarthy first appeared in the July 30, 2023 edition of the Spokesman Review.

One of the last stories to run in the Grant County Journal detailed important civic concerns – the city of Soap Lake’s financial health continued to decline and a special investigation found the police chief conducted personal business while working for the city, including purchasing and selling a police vehicle between other cities during work hours.

That journalism was based on a May report by my office, the Office of the Washington State Auditor. The Grant County Journal closed the following month after 116 years.

The issues raised by our work still deserve attention. We will follow up on our findings in a future audit. But who will shine a light on the results next time, now that the local paper has gone dark?

Dedicated reporters, editors, photographers and more are doing yeoman’s work every day to bring the news to their communities even as the number of local news outlets shrinks. In my role as the state’s independent auditor, the decline in local newspapers, especially small-town newspapers, is a concern because hometown media often bring our work to the community’s attention. This is a critical step in maintaining government accountability.

Some of the Grant County Journal’s struggles were particular to newspapers, like the cost of newsprint, and some were common to rural areas, like the difficulty of recruiting talented young staff.

For small governments, the consequences of failing to recruit capable staff and fully train them can be a loss of public funds and the loss of public trust that comes with that.

Soap Lake is not alone. Recently, our audit showed the city of Kahlotus lost more than $5,000 because no one reviewed the city’s bank statements other than the clerk-treasurer, who was responsible for the misappropriation.

In Springdale, the mayor was responsible for more than $15,000 in misappropriated public funds using the town’s debit card. No one reconciled bank statements in a timely manner, no one reviewed those reconciliations and the town did not consistently collect receipts to verify that purchases were in the public interest.

There are more such findings in small cities across the state. The dollar amounts may not warrant news stories in large media markets, but the questions they raise absolutely deserve the attention of the residents of those small towns.

Correcting the issues we find requires elected leaders in those communities to roll up their sleeves and check the work of the governments they oversee. Those communities have the support of the state auditor’s office.

My office is increasing efforts to ensure small towns have the resources and understanding they need to implement strong safeguards and ensure transparent operations. As part of that effort, we met with local staff and officials by attending the Association of Washington Cities’ across the state.

This September, the Washington Finance Officers Association will meet in Spokane, and our annual talk on preventing fraud has been elevated from a break-out session to a presentation to the entire membership of public finance professionals.

What about preserving small-town news coverage? As the auditor, I don’t have the answers, but I can say this – Washingtonians still want to know what their governments are doing.

In recent years, my office has been contacted directly by private residents and by new outlets, including “citizen journalists” running personal sites and more sophisticated news organizations founded as nonprofits. New partnerships have formed. The Inatai Foundation, for example, recently partnered with the news site Crosscut to fund accountability coverage of federal relief spending in Washington.

Whatever organization they represent, reporters usually have the same reasons for contacting the State Auditor’s Office. They want to better understand the issues we found, why we are raising them as a concern and what recommendations we are making to address them.

We are happy to provide answers. Educating the public through our work is a longstanding strategic goal of our office. Responding to one capable journalist’s questions can help empower thousands of Washingtonians who read or watch their reports.

I am proud to say that government accountability is a value shared by Washingtonians of all stripes, whether they live in small towns or big cities, no matter their politics, and whether they work inside or outside of the government.

The State Auditor’s Office has been delivering independent audits of every state agency and local government in the state for 134 years, and we will continue to make them available to the public. I encourage residents of small towns to read those reports, keep asking their officials tough questions – and support reporters who do the same.