State auditor, an elective office, perhaps should be appointive

FEW elective offices in Massachusetts are more important and yet perhaps less appreciated by voters than state auditor. Many citizens know little about what it involves; they view it as just another post to be filled through the ballot. Election campaigns for auditor tend to attract little more attention than the sound of an alarm clock atop Mt. Everest. And this year, even though one of those rare occasions when the incumbent is not running again, certainly seems to be no exception.

Former state Rep. John J. Finnegan, the Boston Democrat who has held the auditorship since early 1981 when he was chosen by lawmaker colleagues to fill the then recently vacated post, is not seeking a second full four-year elective term. (He was chosen by lawmaker colleagues in 1981 to fill out an unfinished term.)

Thus far, the three Democrats vying for their party's nomination for the $60,000-a-year office have found their candidacies substantially overshadowed by primary contests for other elective seats, including lieutenant governor. This has to be particularly frustrating for Maura Hennigan and Charles C. Yancey, who are challenging state Rep. A. Joseph DeNucci of Newton, the endorsee for state auditor by the May Democratic state preprimary convention.

The Republican intraparty competition for the auditor nomination, between state Reps. Andrew S. Natsios and William G. Robinson, is but slightly more visible, or at least audible. Each of the candidates in both parties is claiming to be most experienced and best qualified to become auditor. But they could hardly do less and attempt to stage a credible campaign.

Representative Denucci, a former boxer, is in his fifth term in the legislature, where he serves as House chairman of the Joint Committee on Human Services and Elder Affairs.

Miss Hennigan, a teacher by profession, is a third-term Boston city councilor. She is the daughter of a former state senator who later was elected to posts in Boston and Suffolk County.

Mr. Yancey, a former administrator in the state Department of Communities and Development, is a second-term Boston city councilor. If nominated, he would be the first black Democrat to run for a statewide office on a Massachusetts election ballot.

Representative Natsios, a sixth-term state legislator from Holliston, is also state Republican chairman. He was endorsed for auditor by the GOP's April preprimary convention. Representative Robinson, the House minority floor leader for the past eight years, is an ll-term legislator from Melrose.

Underlying the Natsios-Robinson contest is a fierce rivalry in which the state GOP chairman has been critical of his party's floor leader and the latter has been anything but enamored with his opponent's handling of party affairs.

Natsios clearly is relying heavily on his background in finance at a prominent Boston bank prior to becoming a legislator. Although perhaps no less conservative on state fiscal matters than his Republican primary foe, his efforts to steer the state GOP on a moderate course has displeased some of the more arch-conservative activists in the party

Whichever of the two Republican candidates gains the nomination in the Sept. 16 primary faces a stiff, uphill battle to win the November election, as Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than three-to-one on voter registration rolls in the commonwealth.

No Republican has been been elected state auditor since 1938, nearly a half century ago.

Of the three would-be Democratic auditors, Mr. Denucci is generally considered the front-runner. He holds that what the office needs is not somebody with accounting skills, but rather an ability to oversee a team of auditing specialists.

Mr. Yancey, who last spring barely made the required 15-percent Democratic convention delegate support to qualify to compete in the primary, is emphasizing his educational and professional background in the fields of finance and administration.

Miss Hennigan contends that her experience in helping handle Boston's more than $1 billion annual budget is a particular plus for her.

None of the candidates in either party is an auditor by profession, or perhaps even close to it. Whoever is elected would have to rely heavily on a staff of accountants and others in putting together the hundreds of reports annually regarding the use of public monies and operations of various public agencies.

The electorate, faced with many offices to fill, cannot possibly know which candidate might be best qualified for state auditor. That may be why over half the states across the nation, including four in New England, do not elect their auditors through the ballot. Most entrust the selection to their legislature.

While perhaps less than ideal, that arrangement might be preferable here, especially if specific professional qualifications were spelled out in the state constitution, so that the job could not be handed to a political hack with friends in the legislature.

Since the auditor's office is supposed to be nonpolitical -- although that has not always been the way its reports have been handled -- an even better idea might be to fill it with a professional in public finance, through the civil service process.

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