RAMS board members plan reform, but no action yet

Screen shot of Sen. David Tomassoni being interviewed by Northland's News Center's Nick Minock.

Screen shot of Sen. David Tomassoni being interviewed about RAMS job controversy by Northland’s News Center for Feb. 4, 2015 story.

The Range Association of Municipalities and Schools board held a special meeting last night to reorganize and discuss its appointment of Sen. David Tomassoni as executive director. RAMS is a lobbying organization that advocates for units of local government on Northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. Many at the Capitol and in the media, including me, have been highly critical of the move, citing a conflict of interest and unethical practice in having a sitting senator serve the bidding of a lobbying group.

The RAMS board, according to this Bill Hanna story in the Mesabi Daily News, did entertain the notion that reform of the organization might be necessary, but took few, if any, specific steps at this time. I had reported last week of rumors that a major motion to alter the organization’s focus might come; it would appear that motion was morphed into this more general sentiment left hanging by the board.

… former Executive Director Ron Dicklich tried to take the meeting in a different direction, saying lobbyists are needed to bring back the most money possible to cities and schools. He also praised his own tenure at RAMS.

But Lislegard and Baribeau continually refocused the meeting. Lislegard at one point calmly said to Dicklich, “Ron, I think you’re taking this too personally.”

They said the issue at hand is the credibility of RAMS.

“This has nothing to do with lobbying. This is about a great opportunity we now have to bring people together … that’s our hope,” Lislegard said.

Herb Sellers of Great Scott Township agreed.

“An ill wind blows no good. This can make us stronger because of the problem,” he said.

It remains to be seen what RAMS decides to do in the year ahead, though it’s clear that they are not digging trenches to defend all aspects of the status quo.

Meantime, I’ve called for Tomassoni’s resignation from the Senate, though after seeing this Nick Minock story from Northland’s NewsCenter (Duluth’s CBS and NBC affiliate) last night, I am not holding my breath.

You can watch the story, which is a solid summary of where we’re at, here:


Meantime, the state Campaign Finance Board had to reschedule a meeting due to a lack of quorum earlier in the week. They meet Friday to vote on a draft opinion prepared by staff that shows that Tomassoni taking a job, in and of itself, is not a conflict of interest. That was the question Tomassoni asked the board at the behest of his Range ally and Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, and it will likely be answered the way those two had planned all along.

I’ve argued that this question was a false front. The real question is whether Tomassoni’s job duties, which include tasks that sound a lot like lobbying, constitute de facto lobbying. Tomassoni and the RAMS board thought they had immunized themselves from these criticisms because they had placed a sentence in the contract declaring that Tomassoni would not be a lobbyist. But that sentence is contradicted by the plain fact that the only reason this job exists is to influence the opinion of elected leaders for the benefit of clients, in this case other government units. The rest of the job duties show this clearly.

It’d be a little like saying saying Bill Belachek wasn’t the “coach” of the New England Patriots, he’s just an administrator who sees to the details of operating a football team. Sure, he’s “on the sidelines calling plays,” but don’t read too much into that, OK? You’re overreacting.

“Overreacting.” That’s my trigger word today. In the Northland News Center story, Tomassoni said he is “aghast at the overreaction” to this matter. He also said that “‘unethical’ is the last word people would use to describe me,” which, for the record, is a really weird sentence structure to use for a personal ethos.

Since the dawn of this controversy in mid-January, I’ve spent many a reflective moment wondering why something that seems so clearly out of line to me is considered barely worth mentioning by several local and legislative elected officials. Is it me? Am I “overreacting,” as Tomassoni alleges in the interview above?

I’ve plumbed the depths of this question, analyzing in particular my own ego and ambitions. I would tell you in this very moment if I felt I was pushing too hard or for the wrong reasons. I have concluded that, while I remain a flawed vessel, I am not overreacting. The resistance to these allegations by some in RAMS and among the local political power structure is not because they are right, but because they are protecting a broken system, of which this story is but one small part.

Here are the concerns this story raises in my mind:

  • First, to be clear, Iron Range political relationships are deeply personal. These people spend time together, they coordinate campaigns together, they have the same friends, those friends are often powerful people (by local standards). This personal “my friends and I stand together for the people of the Iron Range” is deeply engrained in this area’s political tradition. What I’m arguing is that, over the last 30 years, lawmakers have lost track of what actual people on the Iron Range do to survive; that most people, especially the poorest people, don’t have anything to do with the mines and are being failed every day by shrinking schools, rampant drug and alcohol addiction, and aging, apathetic communities.
  • As I’ve said, ever Range state senator has become a lobbyist immediately after serving in office. I have argued that Tomassoni didn’t even bother waiting. Clearly, there is a culture of cashing out years of public service at the end of one’s career. This is totally legal. The fact that our Iron Range structure has little precedent for former lawmakers just “going back to normal” — teaching, mining, running a business or practicing a trade — shows how disconnected our political world is from the real one. In observing former public officials, I’d say that there is almost a sort of culture shock that occurs when they leave office, like what Red faces when he gets let out of Shawshank Prison. It’s really not all that different when they’re in office, except that regular people treat them with reverence, which I’d argue is why Tomassoni wants to keep both jobs so badly despite all the hard feelings.
  • Local officials are rightly concerned about local issues. They want what’s best for their city or school district. In an environment like RAMS, there is a real worry that sticking your neck out for reform or in any way that would anger local legislators (who are also IRRRB board members) would jeopardize funding for your city or schools. There is real financial benefit for keeping your mouth shut, even if your conscience disagrees with what’s going on. I’d argue that Dicklich’s comments in the Hanna story above show how this gets so personal, so quickly. For the most part we are dealing with average people, not great ones. People mean well, but their fear and pride gets in the way. Human nature is the primary driver of what’s gone on, and the reason change is so hard without some kind of populist force applying pressure.

The only person that can ask for further review of the ethical considerations for the RAMS job is Sen. Tomassoni. He could ask the CFB a more involved question, such as whether his contract constitutes lobbying. He could ask the Senate Subcommittee on Ethical Practices for a ruling on whether this job constitutes a conflict of interest. Tomassoni won’t do these things, though, because I strongly suspect they’d call his new job into serious question.

The only outside action would be if the Senate were to censure Sen. Tomassoni. But a Bakk-led Senate is deeply unlikely to do that, unless there’s a DFL palace revolt against Bakk. Sure, DFL votes might be raised for that cause, but crossing over to support a GOP-led censure measure would result in punitive actions by Bakk — again, unless Bakk’s leadership were questioned, and I haven’t heard anything of the sort, yet.

So, unless something truly unusual happens at the CFB meeting on Friday, that leaves only one recourse. The people back home, to whom I addressed my weekly newspaper column this past Sunday. This is truly your world, and your future to determine.


  1. Aaron, you are not over-reacting to this situation. As you have previously noted, how would constituents know who that are speaking with, the Senator or the administrator? Look specifically at the case with the proposed combined school for Mtn. Iron, Virginia, and E-G. There were votes at the state level regarding funding of the project. If a person was opposed to this plan or the use of funds, one option they had was to contact their legislators and let them know not to support this. In this case they would be contacting the person who also works for the group representing the schools. There are many other scenarios that would be similar. Now if he didn’t hold both positions would it make a difference? Probably not based on the political connections that you mentioned and what goes on behind the scenes, but this doesn’t even make the effort to hide those interactions. He is elected by citizens to represent them and in cases where the citizens don’t agree with their local officials/boards, they could not trust who he was representing at the state level.

  2. By using the “over-reacting” language Tomassoni is trying to suggest that it is our perception of the dual jobs that is wrong. It is holding both jobs at the same time that is wrong not how we perceive it. Typical politician- believe what I tell you not what you know is right.

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