Who Will Lead the California State Auditor’s Office?

Who Will Lead the California State Auditor’s Office?
California State Auditor Elaine Howle speaks with CalMatters at her office in Sacramento on Nov. 9, 2021. (Photo by Rahul Lal for CalMatters.)

A New Appointment on the Horizon

Governor Gavin Newsom is on the brink of a significant appointment with far-reaching implications for his administration: selecting the next leader for the independent agency responsible for evaluating his own administration's performance. This opportunity arises as Elaine Howle, who has helmed the California State Auditor’s office for 21 years, announced her retirement at the end of the year.

Shockwaves in Sacramento

The announcement has reverberated through Sacramento. Assemblymember Cottie Petrie-Norris, a Laguna Beach Democrat, expressed her concerns to Howle: “I’m not sure I’m ready — the institutional knowledge and the framework that it’s taken us to get here, I think is so incredibly important.” Petrie-Norris's remarks came after Howle testified on the progress of California’s beleaguered unemployment department.

Howle’s Legacy

Elaine Howle's tenure has been marked by notable achievements. Appointed as the first woman to the position in 2000 by then-Gov. Gray Davis, she was reappointed by Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger and Democrat Jerry Brown. Her tenure has been defined by a commitment to accountability and transparency, a legacy many hope will continue.

The Challenge Ahead

Dan Walters, a CalMatters columnist, raised a critical question: Will lawmakers, responsible for recommending candidates to Newsom, “select a worthy successor who will maintain the office’s tradition of telling it like it is, not like politicians wish it to be?”

Republican Concerns

Republican lawmakers, a minority in the California Legislature, have expressed concerns about being excluded from the selection process. Seven Republican legislators sent a letter to Assemblymember Rudy Salas, the Bakersfield Democrat leading the nomination committee, advocating for a bipartisan review process. They argued, “Government inefficiency, along with waste, fraud, and abuse, affect all Californians, so it only makes sense that this process should be open, transparent, and enjoy bipartisan cooperation from the start.”

Assurances and Doubts

Committee staffers assured that both Democrats and Republicans would review applications, vet candidates, and decide which names would be forwarded to the governor. However, Republican staff noted the absence of a statutory guarantee for a bipartisan process.

Recent Work and Findings

In her recent work, Howle’s office has produced several critical reports on California’s pandemic response, exposing issues like rampant fraud at the Employment Development Department, inequitable distribution of federal relief funds, delays in rent relief, insufficient oversight of school districts, and mismanagement of federal funds for COVID-19 testing and contract tracing.

Broader Legacy

Howle's broader legacy includes exposing the University of California's admission of unqualified students based on wealth, the accumulation of undisclosed reserves by the UC Office of the President, California's failure to meet climate goals, and the state's ineffective handling of its homeless crisis and affordable housing funds.

Reflections and Future Hopes

In an interview with CalMatters, Howle reflected on her career, the challenges she faced, and her hopes for her successor. Despite initial career aspirations to become an athletic director, Howle found her calling in the state auditor’s office, where she has worked for 38 years. She emphasized the importance of maintaining the office's independence and integrity, especially in the face of political pressures.

A Personal Achievement

Looking back, Howle expressed pride in her contributions to public policy and the tangible impacts of her work. She highlighted the "Every Woman Counts" program audit, which led to improved services for low-income women, as a particularly rewarding achievement.

The Road Ahead

As Newsom prepares to appoint a new state auditor, the selection will not only shape the future of the office but also signal his administration’s commitment to transparency and accountability. The next state auditor will have the crucial task of upholding the rigorous standards set by Howle, ensuring that the office continues to serve as a critical watchdog for the state of California.

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