The Montana Commissioner of Political Practices is a lightning rod of a job. It’s been that way ever since the post was created, and each election cycle only seems to add more challenges.
The latest person to accept those challenges is Jonathan Motl, who was appointed by Gov. Steve Bullock in late May and started on June 10. If he manages to make it through Senate confirmation, his term will end on Jan. 1, 2017.
Although the state’s political practices commissioner is supposed to be appointed to a six-year term, Montana has now had four different commissioners in less than three years. Motl’s predecessor opted to retire rather than undergo the Senate confirmation process. The commissioner before him resigned after staffers in the office alleged he was using public resources while working on his private practice. The one before that couldn’t get confirmation from the Senate.
Let’s hope that Motl turns out to be a more successful appointee – not only by actually serving the remainder of his term, but by actually policing Montana’s campaigns in a timely, effective manner.
The commissioner of political practices is supposed to enforce the laws governing Montana elections, including financial disclosure, lobbying and ethics rules. Unfortunately, the nature of the job and the fact that the commissioner is appointed by the governor inevitably mean the post is constantly subjected to allegations of partisan bias. It’s also chronically underfunded and understaffed, even as it is buried in complaints each election year.
The office usually takes so long to issue a decision, and its decisions are so toothless, that it is all but ignored. Meanwhile, Montanans’ concern over largely anonymous, big money, fact-challenged political campaigns is on the rise.
Motl appears poised to answer these concerns. The 65-year-old attorney from Helena has a long background in campaign law, including work on various initiatives to impose new restrictions on campaign financing. He told the Missoulian’s state bureau that his mission as commissioner of political practices is not to “limit political debate,” but to “keep it fair.” He also described a strong interest in ensuring that the state’s “political discourse” includes financial transparency.
Motl stopped working for his private practice before sitting down at the desk in his new office, which comes with a starting salary of $62,000 a year. While Montana’s next major election is still more than a year away, Motl will have plenty to do in the meantime; his new office came with a backlog of 46 pending cases. Fortunately, it also came with the Legislature’s go-ahead to hire a staff attorney this summer to help get these cases cleared out.
Motl has stated that his top priority will be resolving these cases, followed by making improvements to the electronic database of campaign-finance information collected by his office.
Then, he will face Senate confirmation in 2015. It looks rocky already, with the Senate’s Republican President openly questioning Motl’s political ties and the Senate Majority Leader describing him as “the fourth Democratic hack appointee in a row.”
Motl has in fact been a supporter of Democratic candidates, including Bullock. He has reportedly given slightly more than $5,000 to Democratic candidates over the past 10 years, including $790 to Bullock when he ran for attorney general and then for governor. In addition, he has contributed about $1,800 to ballot issue campaigns and nonpartisan judicial races.
Let’s hope Motl can prove his critics wrong by serving as a fair, impartial and expeditious commissioner of political practices. Let’s hope his conduct restores the faith and trust of Montanans in this post – and earns him confirmation from the Senate.
EDITORIAL BOARD: Publisher Jim McGowan, Editor Sherry Devlin, Opinion Editor Tyler Christensen