HELENA — Montana legislative leaders decided Friday to send the governor five potential candidates for the commissioner of political practices post after deadlocking on efforts to trim the list.
A panel of two Republicans and two Democrats interviewed five candidates Friday, but the group couldn’t agree afterward which should be the top selections.
The legislators are required to send the governor recommendations, but Gov. Steve Bullock can pick anyone he likes once he receives the suggestions.
The recommendations are Helena lawyer Jonathan Motl, former journalist and lawyer Ellen Bush, former political practices investigator Robert Hoffman, legislative session staffer Dan Ritter and Colleen Urquhart-Fillner, who used to work for former Gov. Marc Racicot.
The office that enforces campaign and ethics laws has been beset by high turnover amid partisan wrangling over past appointments. It has seen four commissioners heading the office since 2010. The post pays about $58,000 a year.
The new commissioner will complete the final three years of a six-year term that has been filled by three Democratic appointees who did not complete confirmation through the Republican-controlled Senate. The most recent, Jim Murry, stepped down last month after saying he did not expect to be confirmed.
Republicans on the selection panel tried to remove Motl’s name from the list of applicants. The lawyer has a background of working on ballot initiatives, including the 1990s voter-approved law that established the state’s campaign contribution limits. He also has donated money to Democratic political campaigns, although Motl said that would not prevent him from fairly dealing with cases that could involve those individuals.
Democrats on the panel, split 2-2 between the parties, made it clear they supported Motl.
Bush, who did not have a connection to politics and touted her past independence as a journalist, was the only candidate to receive backing from all four panel members.
Motl told the panel he plans to step down from his law practice if chosen. That conflict was an issue for Dave Gallik, who briefly held the post prior to Murry and was criticized for trying to do two jobs.
Senate President Jeff Essmann said he would prefer a nominee who could erase “some of the politicization that occurred in that office.” He said the other candidates don’t have Motl’s ties to some political issues.
Democrats said they were content sending the governor the full slate of names, even though he can choose anyone he wants.
Lawmakers made a similar move in 2012 when they just sent a slate of names after failing to reach bipartisan consensus and Schweitzer nominated one of them, who was the wife of a Democratic state senator. The GOP-led Senate then ignored Jennifer Hensley’s nomination, and she had to step down.
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