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Auditor Candidates Trade Jabs
Tammy Daniels,
01:35AM / Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Candidates for auditor Suzanne Bump, Mary Z. Connaughton and Nathanael Fortune debated at BCC on Monday night.

PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The two major party candidates for the state auditor's job spent Monday night trading jabs over negative campaigning and past scandals, leaving the Green-Rainbow candidate to position himself as outside the fray — and of business as usual.

The debate was sponsored by The Pittsfield Gazette and Pittsfield Community Television and hosted at Berkshire Community College. One of the candidates, Suzanne Bump, 54, is a resident of Great Barrington, (which she confirmed again on Monday).

Best quote of the night: Fortune on whether he's a spoiler in the race. 'If electing a Democrat to office would make a difference, we'd already be living in Nirvana.'

The Democrat and former labor official for Gov. Deval Patrick is seeking the position against Republican candidate Mary Z. Connaughton, 50, of Framingham, former director of the Massachusetts Turnpike and a certified public accountant, and Green-Rainbow candidate Nathanael Fortune, 49, a Smith College physics professor and Whately School Committee chairman.

Moderator Daniel Valenti, local writer and political commentator, prefers a free-form style of debate that allows give and take between the candidates. "We will encourage dialogue among the three candidates and we would prefer them to interact with each other rather than me," he said at the beginning of the hourlong debate.

He didn't have to worry about dialogue: Bump and Connaughton breezily clashed in a practiced performance — it was, after all, about the 10th time they'd debated — prompting Fortune to quip, "I did offer to sit between these two."

Bump started the day in Boston on a "Donut Fund Express" to the Berkshires, making stops at independent doughnut shops along the way to highlight recent stories about fiscal mismanagement at the State Lottery in 1990s — some of which occurred during Connaughton's tenure there as chief financial officer. Money was routed to a so-called "doughnut" fund to hide expenses for parties, entertainment and promotional events.

"Yes, these practices were going on for decades before I got there; they ended under my watch," said Connaughton, who claimed she had done much to put in place "culture-changing moves" within six months of joining the Lottery. "I fixed it; I was hired to clean up a mess and I did it."

The Romney appointee waved an endorsement from the liberal-leaning Berkshire Eagle on Bump's turf and noted she is the first CPA to ever run for the post. Bump waved a state auditor's report and attacked Connaughton's performance in dealing with abandoned properties she said cost the state $16 million. Connaughton said it was about eliminating a sweetheart deal with one contractor to ensure competition and getting the money into the taxpayers' pockets, not the state's general fund.

"Suzanne, you just don't get it, you just don't get it," said Connaughton, which elicited some applause from the audience left from the earlier debate for the 2nd Berkshire District.

Bump dismissed her opponent's "soaring rhetoric," "it's her failure to take responsibility that's the most disturbing thing."

Valenti questioned Bump on the recent flap over where her primary residence is. She and her husband had filed for property tax exemptions on both their Great Barrington home and South Boston condo. Bump said Boston had changed the rules without informing them.

All three candidates said they would be advocates for the public and take a more aggressive stand on looking at not just expenditures but outcomes to see if public money was being spent wisely. They all said they would bring in an independent auditor to review the office, which hasn't been done in 20 years. Bump and Fortune said the division's 300 employees and $17 million budget were enough. Connaughton said she'd have employees reapply for their jobs as way to review staffing and qualifications

Bump and Connaughton try to get their points across at the same time.

Fortune tried to keep his comments to the role of the auditor ("it's hard to be a candidate if your mother has trained you if you don't have anything nice to say ...") and said he would be an advocate for the public. He noted his role in reducing energy costs in his own school district through analysis and research and recognition by the state school committees association for his analysis of state and local education funding.

"The three of us have been to enough debates that to some extent we can say each other's points. The most common from Suzanne is you should be a bureaucrat to be this and, from Mary, you should be an accountant or an auditor," he said. "Both those skills are valuable in being a state auditor but neither of them are essential."

Politics and lobbying "distorts the priorities," he said; if public dollars paid only for public services, it would free up $1 billion. "You have to follow the money."

Bump said her experience in state government, during which she oversaw teams of auditors and researchers in investigating spending and outcomes for various work-force programs to "go beyond simply how much money did we spend, but what did we get for it and how can we do it better."

"You need somebody who can set priorities and be a leader and that's what I have done when I was a legislator and as a cabinet secretary," she said, agreeing "somewhat" with Fortune. "We do have billions of dollars in tax exemptions, and tax credits and tax incentives and few of those individual programs have mechanisms to determine if the taxpayers are really getting the benefits they're supposed to get."

Connaughton touted that fact that she is the only CPA who has ever run for auditor and her experience working in the state treasurer's office and the former MassPike. She pledged to run a professional department and bring "lots of sunshine" to Beacon Hill.

"I do not need on-the-job training at the taxpayer's expense. [The auditor] is the people's eyes on Beacon Hill, it's their voice on Beacon Hill to make sure our tax dollars are being spent properly," said Connaughton. "I will manage this office in an extremely professional way ... politics has nothing to do with the state auditor's race."

Toward the end of the debate, Connaughton tried to get a pledge from Bump not to engage in negative campaigning when her television ads hit the air on Wednesday. Bump said it depended on what Connaughton meant by negative campaigning. 

"They are going to contain positive things about my candidancy," said Bump and, in response to questions, confirmed "Mary's name will be in it."

Fortune said he'd be happy to take the pledge. "I'm not running any ads at all. I think I'm running a very frugal campaign ... I'm setting a good example for state auditor."

The debate will be rebroadcast on PCTV. We will try to have audio up later Tuesday.

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