HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - She's been one of the most respected and feared figures in state government. But after 21 years, Marion Higa will retire as state auditor at the end of December.
Higa, 70, became acting state auditor at the end of 1991 and then was appointed to her first eight-year term as auditor the following year. Higa sent a letter to legislative leaders Tuesday announcing her intention to retire at the end of the year.
She believes the time has come for her to do what her close circle of friends has been doing for years. "At any given time, almost, somebody's out of town. They're traveling the world, and I'm sitting here thinking, wait a minute. It's about time for me to go, too, on my bucket list," Higa said.
Higa joined the auditor's office 41 years ago. During that time, she's been thinking about whether state government has operated efficiently with our money. Her office has audited the Hawaii Tourism Authority the Hawaii Superferry, the state Highways Division, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, and several other state projects and agencies. but one audit she talks about frequently is a 2001 study of a storeroom that was operated by the state Department of Education.
"The DOE used to have a storeroom, and all teachers had to first order their supplies from this storeroom that was in Waipahu," said Higa. "We were asked to audit the store room, and so we did. So my staff went out there, went to look at how the private sector does this, and came to the conclusion that this is nuts."
The audit said the storeroom was inefficient and wasteful. The DOE eventually shut down the storeroom and allowed teachers to get supplies more directly from suppliers. "I think its made the life of teachers much better," said Higa. "And as a person with an education degree, that matters to me."
Some agencies welcomed the audits, but others would criticize the findings. Higa said the job entailed much more than just pointing out problems.
"It's our obligation to look at the cause, and then therefore look at solutions to that cause because if you can't find the cause, you can't find a solution," said Higa.
Higa is stepping down about halfway through her third eight-year term. Under the law, deputy auditor Jan Yamane will take over as acting auditor.
"You can't replace Marion," said Yamane. "I mean she's been with the office for so long, remembers every little detail all the way back over the 40 years."
Yamane herself has been in the state auditor's office for ten years. "Often times when people ask me, 'Where do you work?' And I tell them the office of the auditor. And they think to themselves, 'Now where is that and what do you do?' And then when I say I work for Marion, everybody knows where I work, what I do, and the impact that this office has on state government," she said.
Higa said her job is still misunderstood. She said when she enters a room, she tells people that her office doesn't do tax audits. "We don't audit your tax returns. We have nothing to do with your tax returns. And in fact the law prohibits us from looking at your tax returns. And then everybody relaxes," she said, laughing.
"If life here is improved, then that's part of our mission, and that's what the constitutional drafters intended for us. It wasn't just about spending," Higa said.
Yamane would like to succeed her boss, but it will be up to the legislature to pick a new state auditor. She realizes Higa will be tough act to follow.
"Huge shoes to fill," said Yamane. "She's a tiny woman but probably has the biggest clout in town."