Hang around political people long enough, and you’ll become struck by how personal much of it is. Personal relationships matter a lot in places high and low.
In places like a state legislature interpersonal relationships can sometimes swamp all other considerations, leading to results even many constituents can puzzle over. So how do we figure out when something is personal and when it’s a matter of real difference over public policy?
Take a look at the Ada County Highway District, which recently has seen a squabble on its commission, and try to tease it out.
The debate goes back to midsummer and a proposal before the commission to allow a vote (on the November ballot) on whether to raise car registration fees. Of the five commission members, two - Jim Hansen and Kent Goldthorpe - voted against the idea, and three - Sara Baker, Paul Woods and Rebecca Arnold - were in favor. The measure will appear on the local ballot.
A couple of weeks later, Hansen sent an email to Goldthorpe and Woods, saying he might be persuaded to support the ballot issue if the commission supported some transit ideas he was proposing. Because that discussion involved business before the commission and because the communication involved a majority of the commission (three of the five members), Hansen violated the open meetings law. Goldthorpe in turn sent the mail to other commission members as well, compounding the situation, though he said he did that because he interpreted the Hansen note as a matter of district politics, not debate of formal board action.
The violation still seems clear enough; now, what to do about it? The state attorney general’s office was contacted for an opinion, and Deputy AG Paul Panther promptly delivered one. Yes, the law was violated, he said, but Hansen (and Goldthorpe) could resolve - “cure” - the problem simply by admitting publicly to the communication. Both of them did that.
He did not recommend further action: “Our office is vested with the public’s trust ... These responsibilities are not served by pursuing a civil action against public officers who have admitted their mistakes and who have sought as individuals to remedy any potential injury caused by their improper conduct.”
That might have seemed like the end of the matter. It was not.
The commission’s president, Sara Baker, sent an angry letter back to Panther. She called on the attorney general’s office to “prosecute [Hansen] to the fullest extent” and “make an example of Commissioner Hansen.” (She gave Goldthorpe a pass because, she indicated, his motives were better than Hansen’s.) The commission voted 2-1 (since Hansen and Goldthorpe both abstained) to send that letter to Panther. In effect, that official commission statement represented the view of less than half of the commission, but Baker pushed it through, as such, anyway.
Panther again declined to take further action.
When we get into the subject of motivations, we wander onto tricky territory because we never can delve inside a person’s mind and conclusively determine what they’re thinking, and why.
But it doesn’t seem a far reach in this case to see at work something more than simple concern for the open meetings law, something more personal. And some of the elements involved with it - the insistence on punishment and making an example, of pushing through a minority opinion masked as that of a majority - may offer some of the indicators worth our watching in other places as well.