Our Opinion: Learn is best choice for county auditor
In the spring, we described the Multnomah County auditor's election as a low-profile contest between three qualified candidates.
Five months later, our analysis hasn't changed, and neither has our choice, though the contest has narrowed to two good candidates in a runoff.
In our view, Scott Learn is still best poised to bring a more aggressive attitude to the county office while maintaining the professionalism and objectivity it requires.
The elected county auditor plays a low-profile but crucial role, serving as an independent watchdog to ensure good government by rooting out inefficiency and waste.
And the past few months, in which the county has failed to answer basic questions about how it protects both animals and the mentally ill, make it even more apparent that Learn's unusual skill set is desperately needed.
The current auditor, Steve March, is leaving after the maximum two four-year terms. The former state lawmaker provided a steady hand, and produced some very good audits, including two deep dives into the county Animal Services division.
But March at times seemed to lack the energy or political acumen needed to combat resistance to his recommendations from elected commissioners or top administrators.
That was evident this summer, when March's shop released a scathing follow-up audit documenting that dogs in the care of the county animal shelter in Troutdale sometimes go for months without meaningful human contact, likely adding stress for the animals and leading to anti-social behaviors that could endanger those adopting them.
When commissioners, led by Sharon Meieran, challenged the audit, March largely kept his silence.
His failure to more strategically address the claims of shelter management — many of which were misleading or missed the point — left commissioners confused about who was in the right — and undermined the good work of Jennifer McGuirk and Nicole Dewees, the auditors who conducted the report.
McGuirk now is running for March's job, and finished ahead of Learn in the primary.
McGuirk has an insider's knowledge of the department, which is a plus. And, we agree with her that the auditor's office should be more proactive, particularly when it comes to looking at areas to ensure social justice.
Our concern is that McGuirk may blur the line between an activist and the steely-eyed investigator needed for the job.
Auditors must follow the facts, even when those facts challenge assumptions. Learn already has demonstrated an ability to do just that, both as an investigative reporter for The Oregonian and, for the past five years, as a well-respected state performance auditor. He also has the contacts, skills, poise and acumen to effectively battle the county bureaucracy and instigate positive change.
Either Learn or McGuirk would likely be more aggressive than March in looking for ways to improve government performance — such as in the chaos-ridden Department of Community Justice.
But we think Learn's experience in a newsroom and at the state would bring a fresher perspective to the job. Combine that with his track record of ethics and objectivity, and he emerges as our top pick among two solid candidates.
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