Public workers’ political activity limited

Laws prohibit service such as membership on a central committee.

Public employees will be hitting the campaign trail heavily this fall as a high-stakes fight over collective bargaining plays out statewide in Issue 2.

But as they don T-shirts, walk in parades, hand out literature and appear in TV commercials, they have to mind a slate of laws that govern how politically active government employees can be.

These rules — some of which are occasionally overlooked, a Dayton Daily News investigation found — are meant to sharpen the fuzzy line between government operation and politics.

“The danger is, say you’re an officer in a political organization and you’re also a classified employee, does the party political actions and activities bleed over into your civil service job?” said Grant Neeley, political science professor at the University of Dayton. “The difficulty in separating out those two is why you see a law like this.”

Government employees are frequently active in politics. Montgomery County government employees make up one-quarter of the 186-member Montgomery County Democratic Party Central Committee and one-tenth of the 278-member Montgomery County Republican Central Committee.

State law prohibits classified public employees — laborers, office staff and other workers who have civil service protection — from engaging in partisan politics, which includes participation in a political party central committee. Most central committee members from both parties who are county employees are unclassified — often managers, workers who handle money or special appointees — and are exempt from this restriction.

But the Daily News found a handful of examples in Montgomery, Warren and Butler counties where this law has not been followed.

A Butler County Prosecutor’s Office secretary quit her post in the Butler County Republican Party leadership last week after a Daily News reporter called and asked about her status as a classified employee.

In Warren County, one Democrat works in the county auditor’s office and one Republican works in Workforce One while holding party posts in apparent violation of the law, the Daily News found.

Montgomery County Deputy Administrator Joe Tuss, notified by the Daily News that six classified county employees appear to be serving on the Democratic Central Committee, said he is investigating the situation. The county has 1,744 classified employees and its personnel policy mirrors state law and prohibits all employees from politicking on county time.

“It’s the individual employees’ responsibility once they’ve been hired to ensure they’re in compliance with all the county’s personnel policies,” Tuss said. “When we become aware, then we do take action.”

Ohio rules also prohibit classified public employees from activities such as soliciting money for political parties or candidates. The laws allow them to attend rallies, display political material on their private property or work the polls for nonpartisan issues.

‘That will not happen again’

The Butler County secretary’s resignation leaves that county’s prosecutor’s office with a highly political work force. The Butler County office employs 14 Republican Central Committee members, and none from the Democratic party.

Prosecutor Michael Gmoser, who was appointed by the county GOP in February to replace former Prosecutor Robin Piper, said that was none of his doing.

“Frankly my understanding in the past was the past administration encouraged individuals to be on the central committee,” he said.

Gmoser said this sometimes involved simply changing people’s job from classified to unclassified service so they could hold party office.

“That will not happen again,” said Gmoser, who himself is not a member of the party’s central committee. “I will never use my employees for political purposes.”

Warren County government employs seven of the county’s 53-member Democratic Central Committee and 23 of the county’s 158-member Republican committee.

“I was unaware,” said Republican Warren County Auditor Nick Nelson when notified that a Democratic Central Committee member was working for him in a classified position. He said he notified the employee.

“I’ll plead ignorance and I really doubt he was aware of it either,” Nelson said.

A Workforce One employee is also a member of the Republican central committee.

Greene County employs eight of the county’s 114-member Republican Central Committee, and none from the Democratic committee, the Daily News found.

‘More leeway’ with issues

While state laws allow public workers more leeway to be active on nonpartisan issues like Issue 2, AFSCME-Ohio spokesman Dennis Willard said he advises members that rules in their own workplaces can be more strict.

Issue 2 is the referendum that will be voted on Nov. 8 over whether the state should retain Senate Bill 5, a recently passed law that limits collective bargaining rights for public workers.

“You can’t wear a ‘I Love Ted’ button at the workplace, you can’t do political activities on behalf of candidates at the workplace and things like that,” Willis said. “There’s a little more leeway for public employees when it comes to issues. You can wear certain types of buttons and other things in the workplace.”

Even then, city ordinances and workplace rules can limit such political speech, he said, “but it has to be uniform.”

Montgomery County’s policy, for example, allows employees to wear political badges or buttons to work or to put stickers on their private vehicles, but does not allow any actual campaigning on county time, according to county spokeswoman Cathy Petersen.

Elections, auditor’s offices most political

Democratic Auditor Karl Keith employs eight Democratic party leaders and no Republican committee members. Republican Sheriff Phil Plummer employs five committee members of his own party and none from the Democrats.

Central committee members are elected in partisan primaries. They are the nuclei of the county parties, tasked with financing campaigns and filling partisan posts when someone leaves office.

The Board of Elections is the office housing the most party leaders: eight Democrats and 11 Republicans. All BOE employees are unclassified under state law, so that practice is legal.

Keith’s office comes in second. His 81-person auditor’s office includes eight Democratic Central Committee members and two elected officials, other than Keith himself.

Those officials — Vandalia Mayor Bill Loy and New Lebanon Council member Glena Madden — both hold nonpartisan positions. And Keith says all eight central committee members he employs are unclassified staff.

“I encourage my employees to be active in the community,” Keith said. “I’m happy to see them involved, whether it be in politics or in community service organizations or their church.”

“What they do after hours or on their lunch hour or those types of things, that’s their business,” he said.

Potential for ‘a real conflict’

The laws that govern political activity of government workers were put in place to keep Tammany Hall-style political machines for sprouting up, according to Neeley, who is also director of UD’s Master’s in public administration program.

“This goes back to problems when you had machine politics, party politics running everything in government,” Neeley said. “It’s really a movement to make sure you have a professional public service, and for employees to give them some space so they weren’t receiving pressure in their normal civil service job to be embroiled in party politics.”

But even when the person is willingly wanting to be an active party leader and rank-and-file public servant, “the potential is there for a real conflict,” Neeley said.

The line between what is and is not appropriate for government workers and politics has blurred in local county government several times, though it usually only makes news when the allegations run afoul of more severe laws.

In 2008, Montgomery County Prosecutor Mathias Heck Jr. admitted to violating the federal Hatch Act by asking six subordinates to purchase tickets to Montgomery County Democratic Party fundraisers. Heck decried the investigation as a politically motivated federal witch hunt.

Leaders of both the Montgomery County GOP and Democratic parties say many people get involved in politics for the same reason they became public employees: because they’re civic-minded.

Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine said the law on classified employees may be outdated and should be reconsidered given other laws that punish elected officials for trying to coerce staff politically. The prohibition against classified employees being active in partisan politics, he said, seems to limit the rights of rank-and-file employees.

“I think these laws should be revisited by the legislature,” said DeWine.

Contact this reporter at (937) 225-2251.