YAKIMA -- Let's face it: State auditor is not the sexiest gig.
The auditor is the hall monitor of state government -- a position meant to ensure that everyone acts responsibly, but one not particularly well loved by other government agencies. And just three people have held the office since 1933, adding to the snooze factor.
Auditor Brian Sonntag is retiring after 20 years, and the race to replace him is a wide-open affair between three Democratic lawmakers and a Republican businessman from Redmond. The top two candidates with the most votes in the Aug. 7 primary advance to the November election.
The work doesn't grab the hottest headlines or incite exciting dinner conversation, Sonntag said, but auditors are in a unique position to really make a difference in government.
"Whether it comes out of a local government or a state fund, it's public money, and we want to make sure that we're all good stewards of the public's money," he said.
The state auditor promotes efficiency and openness in state and local government, conducting financial and performance audits and holding agencies accountable to open government laws.
Four strong candidates stepped up to fill a rare open seat in the office: Reps. Troy Kelley of Tacoma and Mark Miloscia of Federal Way, Sen. Craig Pridemore of Vancouver, and business development consultant Mark Watkins of Redmond.
Kelley and Pridemore, both former chairmen of the Joint Legislative Audit Review Committee, come with vastly different experience.
Early in his career, Kelley worked as an audit team leader for the Securities and Exchange Commission, before working for a title company and then starting his own business that tracks recorded documents.
Pridemore started out at an accounting firm in California, where he oversaw audits, then moved back to Washington to work as a financial analyst for the Clark County Public Works Department and, later, as a Clark County commissioner.
Kelley said he sees opportunities to expand reviews by the auditor's office, including in areas of cyber-security and interstate compacts, an area that could improve public safety and potentially save the state money.
Pridemore said he believes the current scope of the office is good, and said he would work to find a resolution on public records requests that hamper local governments.
"The number of harassment requests is growing for local governments, and we need to find the right balance that ensures the public's right to know what government is doing," he said.
Miloscia conducted performance audits of contractors during his military career, when the military was being pointedly criticized for buying $500 hammers, and he said that experience gave him "the bug" to improve government.
Since then, he says, he has audited state agencies, hospitals, colleges and small businesses, and is a certified quality examiner.
"I've been in this audit business for over 25 years, and I've been passionate about trying to make Washington state the best-run, most efficient, effective, responsible government," he said.
Watkins, the lone Republican, said he has completed more than 150 performance audits in his professional career, working with major federal agencies, nonprofits and private businesses, and has managed offices of far more people than the 350 employees of the auditor's office.
But he said the auditor's job is about "performance, not politics," and noted that he is the only candidate not in public office.
Watkins unsuccessfully ran for the Congressional 1st District seat in 2010.
"This is a job that, by its very nature, is independent and nonpartisan, but by the very nature of their experience, the other candidates are disqualified for this job," he said. "The legislators have vested interests."
Sonntag has declined to endorse a candidate, but calls all four candidates "capable" of leading the office. The timing is good for a new agenda, he said, and the key for the eventual winner will be carrying out those responsibilities in a nonpartisan way.
"There's a new governor coming in, a new state auditor coming in," he said. "This is going to be a good time to adjust focus on what the next 20 years or the next generation of priorities might be."