Most Nebraskans expected that Gov. Pete Ricketts would bring new concepts and innovative thinking to the executive branch of state government.
But did they expect Ricketts would have a privately paid senior adviser working for him as a member of his management team?
The work arrangement makes the Journal Star editorial board uneasy.
Ricketts said senior adviser Jessica Moenning will help “broaden the number of people who have the ability to give input to state government.”
Moenning already has helped organize informal advisory groups on agriculture, manufacturing and corrections, and has attended some meetings of the governor’s staff. She helped write the governor’s State of the State speech. Moenning has a private office near the Capitol.
Ricketts said Moenning would not be involved in the day-to-day operation of state government. Taylor Gage, Ricketts’ public relations director, said Moenning would be involved in long-term strategy.
Ricketts said Moenning’s role “doesn’t fit neatly” into the categories of a state budget. He said she will be directly accountable to him, and he is accountable to the voters. He declined to say how much she would be paid.
The vague description of her duties does little to reassure those Nebraskans who might be worried that some aspects of public policy might be developed and put into effect outside the usual public channels.
Ricketts said, however, that he wants to be transparent about Moenning’s unusual role in his administration.
The governor and Moenning should be credited for seeking advice from Frank Daley, director of the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission, to make sure the work arrangement would not violate state laws.
Some indication of the role that Moenning has played so far came with the release of emails after Nebraska Party Chairman Vince Powers, filed an open records request for communication between Moenning and Ricketts and his staff.
But not all the questions have been answered.
Jack Gould of Common Cause said Ricketts' use of a private adviser might save tax dollars, but it sacrifices accountability. It should be “by the people and for the people,” Gould said.
Gould also raised the question as to whether Moenning would be obligated to abide by the state’s ethics laws.
One of the biggest unanswered questions posed by the unusual working arrangement is where to draw the line. If it’s OK to put one member of the management team on the private payroll, is it OK to put two on the private payroll? What about five staffers?
There is an unfortunate trend in the public sphere for employees to draw some of their pay from private sources. In recent years, for example, the president of the University of Nebraska has drawn a portion of his salary from the NU Foundation.
When those working on behalf of the public draw their pay from private sources, it creates doubt as to whom they answer to. Their loyalties should be undivided. They should answer to the public.
Office: Common Cause Nebraska