State political watchdog must watch self more doggedly

From the editorial board

Elections in Washington — including the big primary election coming to a head this week — would be woefully lacking in credibility and transparency if not for the unsung work of the state Public Disclosure Commission.

The PDC holds the sacred trust of keeping skullduggery out of political campaigns. It enjoins candidates and their patrons to obey spending rules, reveal their financial interests and not play fast and loose with their advertisements. It also maintains a slick new website that puts reams of data at voters’ fingertips. The commission’s motto says it all: “shining light on Washington politics since 1972.”

Elections are the busy season for the PDC’s five citizen board members and 19 paid staffers. Obviously, they’d rather not be distracted by a kerfuffle over the PDC’s own integrity — much less one that centers on a Tacoma methanol plant that will never be built and a citizen initiative that will never go to voters.

But the mini-controversy, starring PDC Executive Director Evelyn Lopez of Tacoma, sheds some needed illumination on an arm of government that’s more accustomed to wielding the spotlight than being inside it.

And it proves, once again, that social media is not to be trifled with. While Republican nominees for president can turn to Twitter or Facebook to bark out their latest opinions, leaders of public watchdog agencies should remain rabidly neutral.

As reported by the News Tribune last week, Lopez drew attention by making online comments that criticized the world’s largest methanol plant and three agencies that wanted to see it built here, including the Port of Tacoma, Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development Board.

Lopez called the agencies “venal and irresponsible,” among other comments she made between December and April, just months after she was appointed PDC director. Those words came back to haunt Lopez in mid-July, when the state attorney general’s office (her former employer) asked the PDC to take over an investigation of the Port, Chamber and EDB.

The probe will determine if those agencies broke campaign finance laws by coordinating to block ballot measures that would’ve restricted companies that seek to consume more than 1 million gallons of water a day – measures that were born from the methanol plant furor.

The three agencies asked Lopez to recuse herself from involvement in the investigation. She did the right thing by quickly complying, but went about it the wrong way by refusing to allow she might have a conflict or that, at the very least, there might be an appearance of bias. Subsequent recriminations have prolonged the drama.

What’s clear from all of this is that the PDC needs to shore up its conflict-of-interest screening. Spokeswoman Lori Anderson said Thursday that officials were discussing ways to do that.

A good start would be developing a social media policy, even for personal accounts. Staff should be advised to restrict their opinions to the occasional vacation snapshot or irresistible cat photo.

Every year, staffers handle more than 90,000 reports from candidates, political committees, lobbyists and others. They can never know when they’ll have to take regulatory action or launch an investigation against someone in their physical or digital communities.

Lopez seems torn about how much online participation is acceptable. “I’m a big believer in open debate and the free exchange of ideas,” she told News Tribune reporter Kate Martin.

Indeed, the First Amendment is a beautiful thing. But some vocations – including TNT journalists and JBLM military personnel – agree to professional codes that limit how and when they can exercise it. This helps prevent conflicts of interest, both real and perceived.

The same should be true of the professionals at the PDC, whose strategic plan includes the words “fair” and “impartial” no less than four times.

Their vision statement – “building public confidence in the political process and government” – must start at home.