Tester blazes trail for openness

The Missoulian

KALISPELL – Had a tiny town school board out in eastern Montana not done a deal in the dark some 25 years ago, Plum Creek Timber Co. might well have succeeded in signing an agreement that guaranteed residential driveways across public lands.

In fact, that seemingly insignificant closed-door school board decision has had remarkably far-reaching impacts on government openness, sounding all the way to Washington, D.C., and now echoing back to Montana's own house of state.

“It must have been 1983 or '84,” recalled Jon Tester. “And it made an impression on me.”

At the time, Tester was a newcomer to the Big Sandy School Board, and not yet imagining he would one day be U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont.

The school district, he said, owned a house where the superintendent lived. The superintendent wanted to buy the house, the district wanted to sell and the deal was done – but behind closed doors.

Tester, the freshman board member, voted against the sale, not because it wasn't good business, but because he didn't think he knew enough about it. There hadn't been any public discussion.

Turns out, that proved politically popular – when word got around regarding the secret sale, voters responded by tossing out nearly the entire board, including several longtime veterans, “because that's how small communities react.”

“That taught me an important lesson,” the senator said. “When you're working for the public, do it in public.”

Tester went on to chair that school board, then to serve in the Montana Legislature, then finally to challenge longtime U.S. Senate incumbent Conrad Burns, an old hand in GOP leadership. During that 2006 campaign, Burns was accused of close ties with associates of embattled lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and Tester couldn't help but remember the ouster of Big Sandy's incumbent school board.

He ran his successful bid against Burns on a platform of open government and absolute transparency, “because openness helps democracy work better,” he said. “It helps enable people to understand why we make the decisions we make.”

When newly minted Jon Tester cast his first Senate vote in January of 2007, it was in support of Senate Bill 1, the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act. He called it the “most broad-based ethics reform since Watergate,” and it outlawed anonymous earmarks, restricted lobbyists and tightened the Senate's policy regarding gifts.

Tester then began posting his entire daily schedule online, as well as an archive of past schedules. It was a Senate first, “without precedent,” staffer Aaron Murphy said, and by fall the rest of Montana's congressional delegation had followed suit.

“Tester was absolutely the head of the pack,” said Bill Buzenberg, executive director of the Washington watchdog group Center for Public Integrity. “Give credit where credit is due – what he has done has changed the playing field.”

Buzenberg calls political work “the people's business,” adding that “sunlight really is the great disinfectant. How can you vote in the dark, not knowing?”

Posting a daily schedule might not seem revolutionary, but Buzenberg said it set a high standard. Doing so not only gave citizens insight into how Capitol Hill works, but also curbed temptation – lawmakers would be less likely to meet with questionable lobbyists if they knew the meeting would be posted on the Internet for all to see.

“Transparency,” Buzenberg said, “definitely changes behavior.”

Today, only nine others in Congress – including Montana Democratic Sen. Max Baucus and Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg – have followed Tester's lead.

In addition to the schedule postings, Murphy and the rest of Tester's staff soon found themselves working under a political ethics policy far more strict than even the new Senate rules required. The senator's rules were simple – neither Tester nor his staff would accept any gifts, meals or travel, no matter how small. Also, any former employee who left to work as a lobbyist was forbidden to lobby Tester.

Tester stresses that his Senate door has been open from the beginning, and he still holds four “unfiltered” conference calls each month with rural Montana media outlets, to ensure they can ask “whatever's on their mind.” At least one radio station, in Harlem, broadcasts the calls live.

“The voters are my bosses,” Tester said. “They need to be able to know what I'm doing.”

Montana, Tester said, is known not only for open spaces but also for open government.

Many elected officials here now post their daily schedules – they were among the first in the nation to follow the congressional model – and Gov. Brian Schweitzer provides advance copies of his schedule to state media outlets and interested members of the public.

(But the governor does not always provide details. Republican Senate President Bob Story and Democratic House Speaker Bob Bergren, D-Havre, skipped a planned meeting with Schweitzer on Feb. 12, saying they weren't told what was on the agenda. Schweitzer said there was no snub, and that he only wanted to discuss how things were going in the Legislature.)

“Montana kind of leads the way in open government,” Schweitzer staffer Jayson O'Neill said, adding that his boss' door is always open, and anyone is welcome to attend any of the governor's meetings. The specifics of a given meeting, he said, can be had for the price of a phone call.

In addition to published schedules, the 2009 Legislature has both parties blogging about the session, with information straight from the Capitol, and a new social calendar for legislators highlights which lobbyists are providing lunch each day.

Even legislative caucuses, which are off-limits in many states, are open in Montana.

Which is why Montana may have been the worst possible battleground for Plum Creek Timber Co. to defend its driveway deal.

Tester got wind of the talks between Plum Creek and U.S. Forest Service brass last spring, after they had been under way for nearly two years, “and frankly, I got mad,” he said. He immediately recalled that Big Sandy School Board decision, and realized “it was the same kind of situation. It might have been a good decision, but it wasn't made openly.”

Plum Creek had negotiated a sweeping access clarification with Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey, a Bush administration appointee and former timber industry lobbyist.

The impacts – in terms of forest access, the wood products industry, costs of services, firefighting – “were huge for Montanans,” Tester said, “but Montanans weren't invited to the table.”

“I did get frustrated,” Tester said. “I said, ‘This is crazy; this is not how government is supposed to work.' ”

Tester's objections made for a very public, and transparent, roadblock. Rey visited Montana. Plum Creek CEO Rick Holley visited Montana. Lawyers and more lawyers visited Montana.

And after eight months of lobbying voters for the change, the company pulled out of the deal on Jan. 5 – just two weeks before Rey was to leave office – citing a “lack of receptivity” from the public.

“We've been thinking about it for a while,” company spokeswoman Kathy Budinick said at the time. “The controversy just seemed to be continuing, and we want to be responsive to those concerns.”

Without that belated transparency, Tester said, the deal would have closed, just like that 1983 home sale in Big Sandy.

“Senator Tester raised concerns about the process,” Budinick said, “and helped us understand some of the different perspectives about it.”

The senator, she said, “provided positive momentum toward open government and open meetings.”

Government that people can be involved in is exactly what Tester forecasts for the coming four years, when he believes “there's going to be a much more open White House.”

Sure, he said, there are cases – national security, for example – where full disclosure is not necessarily a good idea, “but information should be shared whenever possible,” Tester said.

Had people known the details of activities at Guantanamo Bay, for instance, “I think things that happened would not have happened,” he said.

And that, finally, is the power of the people – a lesson for school boards and senators alike.

“I think the public needs to know in every area where it's appropriate to know,” the senator said. “It's the only way democracy can truly function, is in the daylight.”