The Port of Seattle represents the worst of all possibilities when it comes to local government. It's a huge multi-billion dollar enterprise that, as state Auditor Brian Sonntag says in his new audit, "is one of the largest and most complex local governments in Washington State." But it is a government that lacks real independent oversight and fosters a culture in which secrecy, crony-ism and stonewalling have been the order of the day. Sonntag's new audit makes that clear. Empowered by Tim Eyman's initiative I-900 to audit public agencies around the state, Sonntag has dug into one of the public sector's biggest rat's nests, and he's found some rats. A copy of the report can be found here (pdf). Accounts from the Seattle Times and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer summarizing the damning conclusions and getting reactions are here and here. The gist of the report, which focussed on how the Port manages huge capital projects (like building the Sea-Tac third runway), is offered in a summary of six major finding by the audit: Port construction management lacks cost controls and accountability. The Port circumvents competition requirements in violation of its own policies and sometimes in violation of state law. Port policies and Port management's interpretations of its policies result in a lack of transparency and thwart Commission oversight of construction management activities. Port construction management records are incomplete and disorganized. The Port fails to enforce basic contract requirements, resulting in delays, extra costs, and an inability to defend against claims. Port construction management is vulnerable to fraud, waste and abuse. The audit also identified more than $90 million in unnecessary expenditures and documented how costs for projects like the third runway have ballooned out of control. The Port is notoriously difficult to penetrate--reporters, watchdogs and even Port Commissioners have long been frustrated trying to get a peek inside the entity's inner workings. But one of the more shocking aspects of the audit is how hard staff fought to cooperate even with the auditor. According to the report: Port personnel altered audit evidence and impeded access to information. Some were uncooperative during the audit fieldwork. As a result, the audit says that while it is confident that the findings in its report are accurate, they are by no means are they complete. In other words, things at the Port may be much worse than the already devastating reports indicates: We do not believe the scope limitations presented by the Port undermined the validity of any of the audit findings, conclusions or recommendations. However, conditions noted in the report may be more serious than reported, and there may be additional findings that the audit firm was unable to discover, develop and report. In other words, message to watchdogs: keep digging. The ever-prescient columnist Geov Parrish in his entertaining annual wrap-up of 2007 predicted more scandal ahead for the Port in 2008--a safe prediction if there ever was one, but certainly a timely one. We can only hope. One of the ongoing issues is that the Port, for all its size, clout and taxing authority, is overseen by a part-time, underpaid and weak group of elected officials who usually represent Port stake-holders--unions, contractors, developers. In short, folks with interests--and sometimes conflicts of interest--in Port business. Another problem is that much of the work the Port does is just plain dull: though it's fueled by millions in taxpayer dollars, the public is often put to sleep by in-depth reporting on the Port's activities. This is true of many local government entities that represent special interest constituencies. I'm sure many people in King County don't know they pay taxes for the Port, which they assume is a Seattle thing. And besides, who can name members of all the various sewer, hospital, water and improvement districts or stadium authorities that touch our lives and pocketbooks? Life's too short. On top of that, the Port staff controls information and the Commission has often been composed of a majority of rubber-stampers who have been content to pass on their oversight responsibilities and let the professionals run things. This certainly suited former Port head Mic Dinsmore, who ran the place as a back-room fief. The Auditor's Port report is certainly a bittersweet vindication for Alec Fisken, the city of Seattle staffer who recently lost his re-election bid for the Port Commission. The rap against Fisken was that he was too much of a gadfly and wanted to argue basic issues of Port management and scope rather than be a team player who could help make things go. But the report shows what a load of baloney that was. The Port has largely failed at its own game; that is, that by being allowed to run itself it has demonstrated that it is a model of arrogance, waste, inefficiency and possibly out and out corruption. Fisken paid the price by being ousted by a disgruntled public, but he was one of the only commissioners who was actually trying to get to the Port's rotten core. The audit proves that the Commission needs more Fiskens, not fewer. On the positive side, the audit might finally daylight the Port's cultural and management issues so that an obtuse and preoccupied public can take an interest in how their money is being wasted. And the many Democrats who opposed the new audit law because it had Eyman's name on it will, I hope, finally begin to acknowledge that it is producing results, and that once in blue moon, even Eyman can do a public service.