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MN campaign finance board’s director bows out

The Minnesota government agency that keeps watch over campaign finance regulations will likely see a changing of the guard, perhaps even this summer.

Gary Goldsmith, who has served as executive director of the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board for eight and a half years, told the board at its meeting Tuesday that he wants to leave the post.

Goldsmith said he will stay on in the agency’s lead role until the board selects and hires a successor. Action, or at least discussion toward action, could come as early as the board’s meeting next month.

A possible replacement is Jeff Sigurdson, currently the assistant executive director, whom Goldsmith beat out for the job in 2007. Whoever takes the reins will benefit from a “stable staff” that has seen “almost no turnover,” Goldsmith said.

The full-time staff of eight people and six-member board work to promote public confidence in state government. Their major program areas are campaign finance registration and disclosure, public subsidy administration, lobbyist registration and disclosure, and public officials’ disclosure of economic interests.

But an academic critic contends the staff is too small for the tasks and board members and legislators haven’t pushed the board’s regulatory authority hard enough.

Goldsmith’s news comes in the midst of the 2016 election season, when all 201 seats in the state Legislature are up for grabs. It also comes a week and a half after Gov. Mark Dayton appointed the chair of the campaign finance board, Christian Sande, to fill a vacancy as district judge in Minnesota’s Fourth Judicial District.

But in an interview later Tuesday, Goldsmith said the reasons for his decision had “certainly nothing to do with the board itself.” Rather, it had to do with his being past the minimum retirement age for receiving Social Security benefits.

“If I had the energy, I’d be happy to go on” as full-time executive director, he said.

He told board members he wasn’t interested in leaving state service altogether, and he would like to continue working part time for the board.

Of particular professional interest to Goldsmith is seeing the launch of the reworked website, a yearlong effort. Test users will preview the new website this month, and the full public roll-out is in August.

For all the effort to improve the somewhat homely current Minnesota website, it scored quite well in a report titled “Poor Usability is Undermining Disclosure,” issued six weeks ago by the Campaign Finance Institute. Researchers reviewing campaign finance websites in all 50 states found Minnesota’s scored the highest overall for usability.

That report “proves you don’t need a pretty site to be meaningful,” Goldsmith said, adding that the new website updates the look and feel while “trying not to damage that ease of use.”

The website improvements are another step in moving Minnesota’s campaign finance system into the digital world — a hallmark of Goldsmith’s more than 20 years associated with the board.

From 1995 to 2000, Goldsmith was the board’s assistant director. He continued to work for the board over the next six years as a consultant, then returned to the staff as a management analyst in 2006 before taking the lead role the following year.

‘Relatively weak body’

One critic of Minnesota’s campaign finance system said Goldsmith’s departure is a milestone but doesn’t signal a change in what he says ails the state’s regulatory environment.

“Gary’s announcement that he is retiring is significant, but it will not have a major impact on the state of campaign finance regulation in Minnesota,” said David Schultz, a professor of political science at Hamline University and a visiting faculty member at the University of Minnesota School of Law. The Legislature has “dramatically weakened” laws and the board, Schultz said in an email.

From its establishment in 1974, he said, the campaign finance board was one of the weakest in the United States in the scope of its authority and power and lawmakers haven’t addressed that, leaving the board “a relatively weak body.”

Schultz said the Legislature has done nothing to counteract adverse court opinions, hasn’t acted on legislative recommendations from the board and hasn’t appropriated enough funding to enforce the existing laws.

“Minnesota lives with a myth that we have really good campaign-finance and political ethics rules,” Schultz said, while in reality, the state “is now a laggard when it comes to these types of rules and legislation.”

Goldsmith said guaranteeing the rights of free speech, which include making financial expenditures on political campaigns, hems the board in on some fronts. But over his time with the board, Goldsmith said he has contributed to legislative changes that have helped the board’s constitutional standing, so their decisions meet First Amendment muster without sacrificing the disclosure that benefits the public.

A series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions has reined in what the state board can do, Goldsmith said. Minnesota’s law was as strong as federal law at the outset, he said, though he acknowledged that over the years state lawmakers haven’t kept up with improvements made at the federal level.

Even so, Goldsmith said the Legislature has boosted the agency’s budget, allowing the staff to increase from 7.6 to 8.6 in the last biennium and including a small increase for raises this biennium.

“We’re a creature of statute. We don’t go out and create our own agenda,” Goldsmith said. “If we should be doing more,” that’s up to the Legislature.

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