MISSOULIAN EDITORIAL: Keep Motl on the job as Commissioner of Political Practices

MISSOULIAN EDITORIAL: Keep Motl on the job as Commissioner of Political Practices

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Montana Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl may have the most unpopular job in the state.

He’s the person in charge of enforcing Montana’s campaign and lobbying laws, and currently, he’s in the thick of a busy election season. That includes policing the campaigns of legislative candidates, some of whom will undoubtedly be elected to serve in the 2015 Legislature – where they will then decide whether Motl gets to keep his job.

Not surprisingly, the Commissioner of Political Practices has been a troubled post in recent years. It has historically been a toothless, and largely thankless, but nevertheless critically important position. Unfortunately, it’s also seen a lot of turnover.

The commissioner is appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate. Trouble is, the Republican-leaning Senate seldom thinks the Democratic governor has made a politically impartial choice. The Democratic governor doesn’t help this perception by appointing commissioners who actively support Democratic campaigns.

The result is that neither party is eager to provide a lot of ammunition – in the form of meaningful penalties or funding to crack down on violations – to a rules enforcer they view as partisan.

The Commission of Political Practices is supposed to serve a six-year term, but Motl was the fourth commissioner to serve in a period of less than three years. In 2011, the Montana Senate refused to confirm the governor’s appointment. In 2012, the second commissioner was accused of working on cases for his private practice while logging public hours; he resigned. The next appointee retired before a confirmation hearing could be held.

Motl’s appointment, too, got off to a rocky start. Indeed, when Gov. Steve Bullock appointed Motl in May 2013, the Senate Majority Leader, Bozeman Republican Art Wittich, immediately denounced the choice as “the fourth Democratic hack appointee in a row.

“He's probably going to target only Republicans, leading to more scandal, like the IRS (Internal Revenue Service),” Wittich was quoted saying.

Wittich may be pleased that Motl is proving him wrong; he has decided against Democrats and Republicans alike. In just last the past two weeks Motl has ruled that:

  • The symbol used on campaign fliers for House District 94 candidate Kimberly Dudik does not violate any campaign laws, as alleged by Dudik’s opponent, Gary Marbut.
  • Marie Andersen, a candidate for Missoula County Justice of the Peace, failed to properly report at least $8,000 in campaign expenditures, and in so doing, violated several campaign finance laws.
  • Missoula County Sheriff candidate T.J. McDermott’s campaign violated campaign finance laws by failing to report some $1,400 in in-kind donations and not fully disclosing an additional $11,000 in expenses. Further, the Missoula law firm Datsopoulos, MacDonald and Lind was found to have violated campaign finance law as well in its support of McDermott’s campaign.

And those are just the recent decisions made in Missoula races. Statewide, regardless of how candidates and their supporters feel about the commissioner’s findings, we can all be thankful they they were made in a timely manner – as in, before Election Day.

When he was appointed, Motl pledged to make clearing out the backlog of cases and issuing timely decisions his top priorities. He appears to be fulfilling that promise – and he appears to be doing so in an impartial, even-handed way. With each case closed, Motl is providing further proof that he deserves confirmation by the Montana Senate in 2015.

MISSOULIAN EDITORIAL BOARD: Publisher Mark Heintzelman, Editor Sherry Devlin, Opinion Editor Tyler Christensen

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