McGuirk, Ulanowicz both seek to lead office where they now work by running against each other

PHOTO BY ANGIE MARSH, COURTESY OF JENNIFER MCGUIRK - Jennifer McGuirk has only five years of auditing experience, but says her previous jobs gave her  broader perspectives for the county auditor post. Water cooler talk at the Multnomah County Auditor's Office might be a bit stilted in the coming months.

That's because as elected Auditor Steve March nears the end of his term-limited tenure, two members of his staff are publicly vying to replace him, taking over his small, sixth-floor office and $108,621 salary.

Jennifer McGuirk, 42, and Mark Ulanowicz, 54, have both set up websites and say they are running for elected auditor. With two people poised to file, "It would be the most hotly contested auditor's race in years," March says. He says both of his employees are strong candidates.

While companies often brandish financial audits to show their money is going where it's supposed to, the job of government performance auditing is different. It involves putting a microscope on programs to look for inefficiencies and improvements, then issuing reports on what is found.

In Multnomah County, that means keeping an eye on the county's $2 billion budget spent on everything from health care to law enforcement, bridges and buildings.

COURTESY MARK ULANOWICZ - Mark Ulanowicz has 30 years of auditing experience, including a dozen years with the federal government. To this end, Ulanowicz and McGuirk bring different backgrounds and attitudes.

Ulanowicz has been doing audits for 30 years, the first 12 with the federal government, and says he has the experience and the eye to focus the eight-person office where it can do the most good.

"It's a really important job and I'm pretty good at this," Ulanowicz says. "I'm thinking to myself that somebody needs to step up, and for me it's kind of the right time and place in my life."

McGuirk has worked as an auditor for five years, but says her earlier background, which includes working to promote equity and helping children with disabilities, gives her an edge.

While auditors tend to focus their efforts on the biggest risks to an agency's finances, she says, the costs of government inefficiency to county residents and vulnerable populations should be a bigger focus of the auditor's office.

"I see a real urgency in taking on some of the issues at the county that we are seeing in the press," McGuirk says, noting media reports questioning jail management and treatment of the mentally ill. "We have an opportunity to take our mission and go further with it. I feel like I have the skills to do that and the passion."

In Oregon, top government auditor jobs are nonpartisan. And usually, they are as apolitical as elected jobs get, requiring either a CPA or certification in what's known as the "Yellow Book," the manual of the Generally Accepted Government Auditing Standards, or GAGAS.

But that doesn't mean their jobs aren't political. Government auditors routinely do work that other elected officials don't want to see aired in public. And in Multnomah County, the elected commissioners control how much of the county's budget goes to the auditor, currently $1.6 million.

When he was an auditor in the federal government, Ulanowicz says he didn't have to worry about making enemies. But in the much smaller county arena, "you have to gain the trust of the people you're working with," he says.

As for the elected board, he says, the question will be "Do they think I'm providing good value, do they think I am providing a service that is useful? That is what I hope to do."

McGuirk, similarly, says she would try to ensure quality work and good working relationships. But she also sees an opportunity to raise the profile of the office by taking audit results directly to the community.

"For me the primary audience is the public," she says.

Both of them say they are keeping politics out of their day jobs. But is it weird to be sharing an office with your political opponent?

No weirder than running for office, says Ulanowicz. "I can't say as I've ever done it before."

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