Ferry_Flickr_&yIt’s a little worrying when an organization that’s supposedly striving to hold other agencies accountable is itself acting unaccountably. But that was the conclusion of a state audit of the Puget Sound Partnership, the group that’s in charge of overseeing the cleanup and recovery of Washington’s inland sea.

The Partnership was formed in July 2007 (replacing the Puget Sound Action Team) and employs some genuinely talented and dedicated staff. Yet its recent missteps make it difficult for the Partnership to demonstrate the strong, focused leadership that’s needed to fulfill the difficult task it’s supposed to accomplish: returning Puget Sound to health by 2020.

The audit found that the Partnership “has misspent public funds and circumvented various state laws,” according to a story from KUOW’s John Ryan. (See additional articles in the Kitsap Sun, Seattle Times, Tacoma News Tribune, The Olympian, and Seattle Weekly.)

Violations highlighted in the audit include:

    • The agency signed a contract with a law firm for $19,999—just $1 under the limit that would have required that the contract be advertised or put out for competitive bid. (It failed to put many other items out for bid as well.)
    • Without the proper authority it spent thousands of dollars on Apple computers, which are not compatible with other state computer systems and more costly than comparable PCs.
    • It blew nearly $12,000 on monogrammed jackets and fleece vests, which were distributed to public officials in violation of state law.
    • And it bought 5,000 tubes of promotional lip balm without getting a bid on the job.

    Some of the actions sound pretty trivial, others just sloppy, and a few are seriously troubling.

    Chris Dunagan at the Kitsap Sun assesses the transgressions this way:

    I might add that these are the kinds of issues more frequently seen in audits of small local agencies, such as port and fire districts. It is disappointing to see them in a cabinet-level agency such as Puget Sound Partnership—particularly when the staff knows that some people are gunning for them and will take glee in pointing out any failures.

    Yet the audit findings are actually not the Partnership’s most serious error. I’m reminded of the agency’s failure to initially support some important legislation that would have raised the tax on toxic chemicals to pay for stormwater cleanup.

    The Olympian characterized the Partnership’s stance at the beginning of the legislative session this past January:

    The Puget Sound Partnership is putting its political muscle behind just two bills, neither of which proposes strong proactive action on major problems facing the Sound…

    With legislators desperate to cut programs and raise revenue, Dicks said, major regulatory bills dealing with stormwater and protection of shoreline habitat are “not ready for prime time.”

    Again, this is the group that should be showing us the way to saving Puget Sound, a challenge that requires bold, decisive actions with no time to lose.As the session went on, Dicks got on board with the bill, even testifying in favor of it. The legislation passed committees in both houses but did not become law.

    The Puget Sound Partnership is coming up on its third birthday this summer. Let’s hope these embarrassing gaffes are growing pains that can be put behind and that the agency is at last ready to lead.

    Ferry photo courtesy of Flickr user &y under a Creative Commons license.