Montana Politics: Political Practices

Some of my friends (yes, I have a few friends) contacted me about the Commissioner of Political Practices job opening in Helena urging me to throw my hat into the ring. The current commissioner’s term expires at the end of 2010.

I will still call these people my friends…and to dispel any rumors, I am not a candidate.

It seems with unemployment so high in Montana and across the nation many people decided to throw their names out there (for all to see) and hope Governor Brian Schweitzer selects them. It was first reported that 17 people applied. On Tuesday, we found there are two more, making it 19. Each are saying, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and dog-gone it, people like me.”

Only a select few of these 19 people have a chance to be chosen by the Governor. The other applicants fall into the NCAA (No Chance At All) category. The Governor can even select someone who did not apply. The person selected has to be confirmed by the State Senate. The term is for six years. No second terms. You can’t run for public office for five years after being commissioner (which for some reason seems unconstitutional to me). The pay is pretty low, $51 – $56 thousand annually, but the headaches are frequent. From my research, there appears to be four people working for the Commissioner.

Of the people who did apply, a few names popped up that made me shake my head and say, “Please Noooo!” I won’t disclose their names here (I wouldn’t want to harm or help the process).

Here’s the “Mission Statement” of the Commissioner of Political Practices:

To monitor and to enforce, in a fair and impartial manner, campaign practices and campaign finance disclosure, lobbying disclosure, business interest disclosure of statewide and state district candidates, elected state officials, and state department directors, ethical standards of conduct for legislators, public officers, and state employees, and to investigate legitimate complaints that arise concerning any of the foregoing.

Here are some brief observations:

-The Commissioner of Political Practices holds a thankless job. The commissioner is handcuffed. Don’t get me wrong, having a Commissioner of Political Practices is a good thing. Politics need a referee or campaigns become something like a fifth grade football game on the playground.

-As commissioner you are appointed by a politician (Governor) and voted on by politicians (state senate) to oversee political campaigns. Something just seems funny about that…

-Every person who has been appointed to this position has done the best with what the office allows them to do (at least I see it that way). I’ve read complaints against almost every commissioner, whether a Democrat or Republican appointed them. Many have used the newest technology (that the state can afford) to make the office more accessible.

-The length of time it takes the office to reach a decision breeds corruption in the political process in Montana. Montana is a cheap state in political terms. Knowing that it will take months if not a year or more to make a decision on a complaint basically allows groups to do what they want. They can pay later…after their candidate or issue has won…

I don’t remember if we’ve ever had a “do-over” election in Montana because of an ethics complaint. I doubt it.

-The office needs to have more of a football referee mentality: Throw the flag. Mark off the penalty. Move on to the next play.

-The Montana Legislature needs to address the inadequacies within the office. This is 2010. Not 1975 (when the office was created).

Here’s one idea:

The office needs more teeth (and probably more people with those teeth, too). One idea is to have a three judge panel review the complaints that the commissioner deems time sensitive, and do it within seven days and render a decision. As Election Day grows closer, the seven day window would be cut to five or three days. If the parties involved in the issue don’t show up or file their briefs with the panel, they lose. No extensions. They can appeal the panel’s decision to court and they’ll get to you later…because you can do the waiting, now.

The three judge panel could be made up of all the district court judges on a rotating basis.

Nonetheless, best of luck to the candidates (at least to some of you) for this important job. I’ll be watching…