Wanted: One independent Mainer (that is, unenrolled in a political party) heavily interested in campaign finance. No current or former legislators. Or recent candidates for federal, state or county office of any kind. Long meetings. No pay. Must be willing to have decisions blown out of proportion by political operatives.

That could be the ad lawmakers place when looking for a fifth member of the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices – and it’s been hard to fill.

But with the 2020 campaigns kicking off in earnest, fill it they must.

The ethics panel, which administers campaign finance laws, the Clean Election Act and lobbyist disclosures as well as legislative ethics, has been without its fifth member since March 2018.

Without an independent member, the two Democrats and two Republicans already on the commission are left by themselves to navigate investigations in a highly partisan atmosphere.

In short, the commission’s job is to make determinations of campaign law violations based on the facts found by staff investigations. Having a voice on the panel clearly independent of the two major parties lends credibility to the proceedings and the panel’s decisions.

Having a full commission presiding also adds to that credibility. And now when one member recuses themselves – as happened in a recent investigation of Democratic House Speaker Sara Gideon – it casts even more doubt on a process that is rooted in public trust.

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say they think decisions are well made when it’s a minority of a sitting voting body,” William Lee II, a Democratic member of the panel, told the Press Herald earlier this month.

The diminished panel is looking at a busy year, too. On top of a full slate of increasingly raucous and consequential state legislative races, the commission will oversee a 2020 U.S. Senate race that will no doubt be the most expensive campaign in state history, with record spending by the campaigns themselves and great interest from funders and operatives across the country.

For that, the commission should be at full strength. It has done well in the past to come together for unanimous votes that leave little doubt the process was fair and unaffected by politics. But it’s a five-member panel for a reason.

To fill open positions on the panel, it’s up to legislative leaders from both parties together to forward a list of nominees to the governor. The governor is then supposed to pick a nominee, who is vetted by a legislative committee and voted on by the full Senate.

A spokeswoman in Gideon’s office said it has been hard to find suitable candidates, and given the job’s elements and slim requirements, it’s easy to see why.

But the panel’s fifth position needs to be filled for 2020. Having a full commission will be well worth the effort.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this editorial incorrectly attributed information on the handling of nominees to the Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices by former Gov. Paul LePage to the commission’s executive director. The sentence has been removed.

 


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.