State Sen. David Tomassoni (DFL-Chisholm) may have just a few days to determine whether he will be a State Senator from the Iron Range or leader of the Range Association of Municipalities and Schools (RAMS), an organization that lobbies for local government in St. Paul. His desire to do both, as he announced he would two weeks ago, faces new conflict of interest scrutiny and is wearing thin with RAMS board members.
Sen. Tomassoni and DFL Majority Leader Tom Bakk tried to put a rosy spin on a pending advisory opinion by the state Campaign Finance Board. That draft ruling indicated that Tomassoni's new job was not, in itself, a conflict of interest. The Bill Hanna report published in the three largest Iron Range newspapers strongly suggested the matter was resolved.
However, it has since been revealed that Tomassoni's claim that he would be "on leave" during the legislative session isn't true. Almost immediately after the start of this legislative session Tomassoni conducted work for RAMS, including sending a memo thanking local government units for continued support of RAMS despite the political controversy. Tomassoni's office confirmed to my Star Tribune "Your Voices" blogging colleague Michael Brodkorb that the senator would "remain available" to the RAMS board throughout the legislative session.
The RAMS board is comprised of sitting city council members and school board members from across the Iron Range. Each member unit of government designates a representative to the board.
A RAMS board meeting originally scheduled for Jan. 23 but cancelled for lack of quorum has been rescheduled for Wednesday, Feb. 4. The original agenda Tomassoni proposed for that meeting called for a discussion of "potential lobbyist hiring." Tomassoni's implication, thus, is that board members may consider not hiring a lobbyist, since having a sitting senator on the payroll is far cheaper and arguably preferable.
Bottom line, that's why the CFB ruling is based on an inadequate question, and why this remains an untenable conflict of interest.
This upcoming RAMS meeting, however, may stray far from Tomassoni's original intent. Some board members are poised to ask serious questions about what's transpired so far and what should happen in the future.
This weekend, Rep. Tom Anzelc*, chair of the Iron Range legislative delegation, told me that a RAMS board member is planning to bring a motion to the meeting this week rescinding the job offer to Tomassoni and mothballing the RAMS organization until cities and schools determine what they want from the organization.
This board member is frustrated with the way the organization has spent money on lobbying, salaries and ancillary costs. This was echoed by Virginia and Ely city councilors in recent media reports as well, suggesting there will be a real debate.
I'l go one further. The position of RAMS executive director has largely been used as a landing pad for well-connected Range politicos in between jobs. It's duties have been unclear and its spending tight-lipped, despite being funded by Iron Range production tax revenue, which "belongs," so to speak, to the people of the Iron Range.
Tomassoni, for his part, had said he plans to remain in St. Paul to serve in the Senate this week. However, if he stays down at the Capitol he may see his $6,500 per month job with RAMS slips away from him. If he misses Senate work, it will demonstrate clear conflicts of interest with the day-to-day duties of the new job.
So, Tomassoni faces a tough choice before Wednesday. He may find these are the last days where he has much choice in the matter.
NOTE: My Hibbing Daily Tribune column this morning calls on Tomassoni to resign as Senator. The deadline for this column preceded my knowledge of the coming RAMS board debate. My sentiment, however, is quite unchanged.
* Rep. Tom Anzelc is a personal friend and I've run his legislative campaigns. In most cases we keep our respective lawmaking and blogging separate, but this is an instance where I asked and he told me information I could use in this post.