Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Campaign for office, lose your job?

County employees could be terminated for campaigning against superiors

Express Staff Writer

Walt Femling

Under a proposed policy, Blaine County employees may have to choose between keeping their jobs or pursuing political office. However, the Blaine County Commissioners are taking a cautious approach to adopting it.

On Tuesday, the commissioners decided to delay a decision on the policy until County Administrator Mike McNees has a chance to present them with a host of possible alternatives to include. McNees said he would create a list of possible changes within two weeks.

"It's really up to the board how far you want to go with this," he said.

The language that the county is considering for its employee policy manual was first proposed by the Idaho Counties Risk Management Program, an insurance program that is the primary source of property- and casualty-loss protection for local Idaho governments.

Under the proposed policy, a county employee could be required to resign if he or she initiated a candidacy against an elected official to whom he or she is a subordinate, and if there is a reasonable chance that the candidacy could cause disruption in that official's office.

In a memo sent to Idaho's 44 counties in December, obtained from the insurance program's Web site, program Executive Director Rick Ferguson stated that in past election years, campaigns by employees against elected officials for whom they work have prompted disruption, employee terminations or both. However, he stated that employees enjoy the same civic rights to become candidates for public office as others.

"Dealing with this issue requires balancing the reasonable expectations of the employer to avoid a turbulent workplace with the political interests of candidates for public office who are current employees," he stated.

Ferguson stated that counties that wish to pursue the policy should do so before the 2008 candidate filing period of March 10-21.

During the commissioners' meeting this week, several county department heads commented on the draft policy.

Though acknowledging the difficulty that a subordinate's campaigning against an elected department head can create, Assessor Valdi Pace said she likely would not take advantage of the new policy if it were approved.

"I would probably not fire somebody who ran against me," she said.

Pace said that in her experience a better option might be to require a temporary leave of absence while the employee is campaigning. She said that would relieve any unpleasantness associated with employees' campaigning against their superiors.

"It's a very awkward position to be in," she said.

Appearing more supportive of the policy was Blaine County Sheriff Walt Femling.

Apparently speaking from experience, Femling said he's witnessed tense situations in the office escalate nearly to fistfights among staff aligned with one candidate or another.

"The disruption was terrible," he said. "Bottom line, you have to get them out of the office."

The proposed policy also states that though county employees have a civic responsibility to support good government and may become politically active, they cannot engage in such activity while on duty. No objections have been raised to that provision.

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