The controversy over State Sen. David Tomassoni (DFL-Chisholm) accepting a job as head of an Iron Range public sector lobbying group continues to churn, now consuming local politics as well as the crowded halls of the Capitol in St. Paul.
As we discussed last week, Ely became the first RAMS member-city to delay renewing its membership until this controversy is resolved. In a story in today's Mesabi Daily News, Bill Hanna writes that leaders in the Iron Rangecity of Virginia also have serious reservations about the Tomassoni double-dipping gambit.
Perhaps more troubling for the Range Association of Municipalities and Schools is the fact that a major board meeting scheduled Friday was canceled at the last minute for lack of a quorum. Whether that was because of genuine scheduling conflicts, a desire by some officials to avoid calling out a powerful state senator, or a higher level maneuver to avoid losing control is not clear.
One thing seems increasingly clear. While nervous and unsure, more and more city officials on the Iron Range are recognizing the conflict of interest in this situation, and some of them are calling for major reforms to RAMS.
This, from Virginia City Councilor Charlie Baribeau in Hanna's story:
Virginia Councilor Charles Baribeau, who represents the city on the RAMS board, said in a telephone interview Friday night that all councilors at the Finance Committee of the Whole meeting on Tuesday "agreed that basically it's not a good thing" that Tomassoni would be RAMS executive director while keeping his Senate seat.
"There is talk amongst board members to change the whole operation and get it focused on good causes for the entire Range to bring to the Legislature," he said.
Tomassoni apparently offered private, individual meetings with members at the RAMS office at 5:30 Friday. Tomassoni hasn't made any public statements on this problem all week, except to repeat his original comment that a lawyer he hired tells him that this is legal and that it's no different than a senator accepting any other job while serving, which is common among legislators. This response is inadequate andincorrect. Tomassoni's failure to understand that this is a big deal is only making the situation worse. I again repeat that this situation, if it continues, will allow for any organization in the business of influencing legislators to put a sitting senator on the payroll, absorbing their influence and access into their strategic aims. Citizens will not know whether a senator is working for them or for others when they approach them about legislation and problems. And, as the last week has shown, the appearance of impropriety can absolutely paralyze both the senator and the hiring organization, causing nothing goodto happen anywhere.
The drum beat continues.On the Star Tribune website, conservative blogger Michael Brodkorb chimed in this week explaining that Tomassoni should have approached the Senate ethics committee before taking this new employment, and how doing so would have allowed a result much more public than what will come from the Campaign Finance Board in coming days. Liberal southern Minnesota blogger Sally Jo Sorenson, who agrees with Brodkorb about almost nothing, has been even more critical of Tomassoni's decision and handling of the matter. She told me she is planning more coverage of this story in the near future, so check out Bluestem Prairie for that.
When Michael, Sally Jo, the Ely City Council and myself agree on something being fishy, you better damn well mark the date on the calendar and heed the call.
Sen. Tomassoni shouldresign. His conduct in announcing and explaining this career move demonstrates that he cannot properly balance these two overlapping jobs, nor should he or anyone else try. A collective acknowledgement of this conflict of interestis what would bebest for the state, the legislature, and the people of the Iron Range.