Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Clean Slate. Fresh Start.

Tomorrow is the first meeting of the new Government Accountability Board. The new board will meet at 10 a.m. in the Legislative Council conference room (Suite 401) at 1 East Main Street in Madison.

And not a moment too soon.

Created by 2007 Wisconsin Act 1 – the Democracy Campaign-backed ethics reform legislation enacted into law during a January special session of the Legislature called by Governor Jim Doyle – the new nonpartisan board replaces the state Elections Board and Ethics Board and will be responsible for overseeing elections, ethics, lobbying and campaign finance in Wisconsin.

The first order of business will be to select a chairperson and attend to staffing and other administrative matters to establish the new politically independent agency. Specifically, the new board has to hire a director and two division administrators. Then, in addition to all of its other duties, the ethics reform law requires the board to review all of the existing internal operating procedures, guidelines, rules, orders and formal opinions issued by the Elections Board and Ethics Board. Within its first 12 months, the Government Accountability Board must review and reaffirm each of these items or they will terminate by law automatically.

That may sound like bureaucratic busywork, but the two boards that are being replaced left some real messes to clean up. None bigger than the Elections Board's disastrous contract with the global outsourcing firm Accenture to create a federally mandated statewide computerized voter registration system. New problems with the project became public this past weekend, which led to renewed calls for forceful action. The Elections Board and its director Kevin Kennedy appear paralyzed, as they have been for months, as if waiting for the Government Accountability Board to take this debacle off their hands.

The new board has its work cut out for it. Here are a few of the things that most need doing:
  • Take the bull by the horns on the voter registration project. The Elections Board and Kennedy have been in denial, and this project has become the state government's equivalent of the Iraq War. It's time to face facts, acknowledge mistakes, develop a sensible exit strategy and then execute a plan for cleaning up the mess and getting the work finished.
  • Be proactive. Don't just react lamely like your predecessors. Just today we got yet another glimpse of how things have been done in recent years and what the new board should avoid doing. There's a story in today's Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in which Kevin Kennedy is quoted saying he believes campaign finance laws may have been violated. But near the end of the story is this: "The Elections Board is not looking into the matter because it typically acts only if it receives a complaint, Kennedy said." That is so Elections Board. The old board had all the authority it needed to investigate and take enforcement action on its own initiative, but routinely would not lift a finger unless some citizen gathered all the evidence and filed a formal complaint. That's like a police officer witnessing a crime but refusing to do anything unless a bystander investigates the crime scene and swears out an arrest warrant. This is one internal operating procedure the new Government Accountability Board simply must change. If you have reason to believe laws may have been broken, do your job, gather the facts and take appropriate enforcement action if there's fire where you saw smoke.
  • Get some fresh blood on the staff of the new agency. In replacing the state Elections Board and Ethics Board, the Government Accountability Board will be merging the staff and functions of the two agencies into one. The new board will only be able to initially hire three people – a legal counsel who will effectively act as director and two division administrators – so for the time being these three positions represent the board's opportunity to change the staff culture.
  • Remember that consistent and rigorous law enforcement is the best educational tool. Speaking of changing the culture, the time-honored practice in both the Elections Board and Ethics Board of focusing on "educating" rather than punishing those who cross ethical lines or break election or campaign finance laws should be high on the Government Accountability Board's list of cultural practices that need changing. When wealthy donors were caught exceeding the legal limit for campaign contributions, the Elections Board would go to extreme lengths to avoid punishing the wrongdoing and instead would suggest ways the donor could be made to appear in compliance with the law – such as offering to assign excess donations to a spouse. In so doing, an unmistakable message was sent to big donors: Feel free to ignore these laws, because nothing will happen to you if you do. The result was more donors breaking the law, more flagrantly. If the new board truly wants to educate election participants about the law, swift and sure enforcement with stiff penalties is the only way.

Here's hoping that tomorrow's meeting produces tangible evidence that a new sheriff has truly come to town.

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