The office of state auditor has enormous potential for doing good on behalf of the citizens of this Commonwealth — potential which for decades has remained largely untapped and underutilized.
It’s time for that to change. It’s time the office went beyond unreadable audit reports focused on the minutiae of state spending and brought its work and its focus to the critical issues and priorities that taxpayers have every right to know about.
Essentially, the job of state auditor is to be an independent watchdog, keeping an eye on the spending and performance of hundreds of state agencies and ensuring taxpayers are getting their money’s worth by rooting out waste, fraud, and just plain poor performance.
But it’s also about setting priorities for that office, using its resources wisely, and bringing the public into that process by using the bully pulpit that a statewide elected office provides to shed light on those individuals and agencies that have failed to live up to their responsibilities.
Chris Dempsey, who has labored both inside and outside state government, understands the difference one person in the right job at the right time can make. He is the right person at the right time in the Sept. 6 Democratic primary contest for state auditor.
Dempsey, 39, a Harvard Business School graduate, burst on the local scene as leader of a grassroots group opposed to Boston’s 2024 summer Olympics bid. Before that, he served as assistant secretary of transportation during the Deval Patrick administration, and if you’ve ever used the MBTA app to check on when the next bus or subway is arriving, well, that was part of his legacy. It surely helped that the Brookline resident was and remains a regular rider of the T.
Dempsey has worked as a private consultant, and prior to entering the auditor’s race he served for four years as head of the advocacy group Transportation for Massachusetts.
Under state law, the auditor’s office — with a staff of some 225 and a budget of more than $20 million a year — is required to audit some 375 state agencies once every three years. And so it’s easy to get lost in the weeds.
Dempsey is committed to doing more — which might well require an expansion of that staff and a special unit dedicated to, say, riding herd over MBTA spending and performance. He has proposed using the recent and highly critical report by the Federal Transportation Administration as a roadmap, checking to see that the report’s goals have been met, including its safety goals.
He has also put the expenditure of some $5.3 billion in federal stimulus funds on his to-do list, telling the Globe editorial board that the traditional auditing practice of tracking money after it’s all been spent only to “realize we didn’t spend the money that well,” doesn’t really work.
“I’m proposing to track those dollars in as close to real time as possible,” he said, “and that is not going to be easy to do.”
But then again he is the guy who proposed tracking buses and subways in real time.
The State Police, subject of a reputation-damaging overtime scandal, is also in Dempsey’s sights.
“I think it’s incredibly important that we shine a light on that agency,” he said. “I’ve heard from the grassroots that they’re concerned about the State Police. They want more oversight. And I look around Beacon Hill, and I don’t see anyone who’s really taking the reins on that issue.”
And, as these pages have already noted, Dempsey has set a new standard for transparency during his campaign, posting his most recent tax return on his campaign website along with his answers to more than a dozen questionnaires put forth by a variety of special interest groups. The promises candidates make too often behind closed doors are important indicators of how they will govern. Dempsey’s commitments are all out there for voters to see.
Such commitments are particularly important as clues to whether the auditor will serve as an honest broker when asked to evaluate privatization contracts — a function reserved for that office under the so-called Pacheco law that governs efforts to contract out certain state services and determine whether that is good or bad for taxpayers.
Dempsey’s primary opponent, state Senator Diana DiZoglio, 39, has helped make the race for an often little noticed down-ballot office lively and issue oriented. Her exposure of how the Legislature has dealt with issues of sexual harassment and its use of nondisclosure agreements has been nothing short of heroic. But her nearly a decade of service in the Legislature is no match for Dempsey’s breadth of experience.
The winner of the primary will face Anthony Amore, who is running uncontested for the GOP nomination, in November. It is a sad fact of Massachusetts political life that an open race for state auditor is pretty much a once-in-a-generation occurrence. Incumbent Suzanne Bump has served 12 years, her predecessor, the late Joe DeNucci, served 24 years. And that’s another reason voters need to take this race seriously.
Chris Dempsey has the experience to do the job with a fresh focus on new priorities fitting the times we live in, and he has never been shy about reaching out to engage the public in issues he believes in. That too is what the job requires, and the Globe is pleased to endorse his candidacy in the Democratic primary.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.