Auditor candidates discuss proposed changes for the office

Published 3:57 pm Thursday, October 4, 2007

Each candidate for state auditor says if he’s elected one of his priorities would be to provide more training for office staff and county officials.

Democrat Mike Sumrall of Mount Olive said he wants to train state auditor’s employees to conduct financial reviews of all types of county offices, school districts, universities or state agencies.

Sumrall, who worked in the state auditor’s office for 23 years, said the office has a reduced staff and cross-training would help ease the workload.

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Republican state Sen. Stacey Pickering of Laurel said he wants to ensure that county officials are properly trained about state purchasing and inventory laws. Pickering said local officials also should be aware of how any new legislative laws might affect their financial obligations.

“When the Legislature adds a fee onto a traffic ticket, say $6, because that is a financial issue that takes place in a chancery clerk or circuit clerk office, they must make sure the money is sent back to the state or county,” Pickering said.

Sumrall agreed that ensuring that county officials are properly trained about laws would avoid situations in which a public official “didn’t actually steal something, he just didn’t know the law.”

Sumrall, 50, and Pickering, 39, are vying for the open auditor’s office seat that is being vacated by Republican Phil Bryant, who is running for lieutenant governor against Democrat state Rep. Jamie Franks. The general election is Nov. 6.

The state auditor’s duties include maintaining Mississippi’s accounting system, auditing all state agencies and county governments and conducting investigations into abuse of public funds and violations of state law.

Barbara Powell of Common Cause, a nonpartisan, open-government advocacy group, said the auditor’s office is one of public trust.

“This is a very important office because the auditor is the one who makes sure that the public money is spent in a way that is within the law,” Powell said, adding that the officeholder “should be a person that takes that job seriously and has the ability to do it.”

One of Sumrall’s main talking points in stump speeches is that he’s the only candidate with an accounting degree and experience in auditing.

Sumrall served as Forrest County administrator from April 2004 until he retired this past May. Before then, he was an audit section manager for the state auditor’s office.

“Every state in the southeastern United States has CPAs for state auditor,” Sumrall said. “Why are we different than the other states? Why shouldn’t we demand as much?”

Pickering has served in the state Senate since 2004 and is chairman of the Local and Private Committee. Pickering said he’s now a consultant on business development and government affairs for several companies, but the only one he identified was Howard Industries.

Pickering said he’s the former director of government affairs for Laurel-based Howard Industries, and contends that job gave him some of the experience needed to be state auditor.

“The role I played dealt with the auditing process, quality control and internal audits, as well as human resources and government affairs,” Pickering said. “Our next auditor has to be a CEO who has the background to work local supervisors, the Legislature and state agency heads.”

Another change Pickering said he wants to make is requiring that a performance audit be conducted on all state agencies every four years. He said similar practices in Missouri, Texas and other states have saved taxpayers tens of millions of dollars.

Sumrall said he wants to make technological improvements within the office, such as acquiring software that would allow county information to be downloaded for state audits, a process he said would save time. Currently, state audit employees look at printouts and transfer the information into spreadsheets, he said.

On the Net:

Mike Sumrall campaign:

Stacey Pickering campaign: