Commission discusses ban on employees running for board

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 1, 2009

By Jessie Burchette
All county employees would be banned from running for the Rowan County Board of Commissioners under a proposed new county policy.
And on the flip side, all county commissioners would be banned from being considered for any county job.
A committee looking at revising the county’s policy held its first session Monday afternoon. The committee includes Carl Ford, chairman of the board of commissioners; Tina Hall, a commissioner; County Manager Gary Page and County Attorney Jay Dees.
Commissioners opted to look at the issue after Ken Deal, director of administration, filed as a Republican candidate for commissioner in 2008. Deal lost in the primary.
At the outset of the meeting, the panel agreed that any revised policy would only apply to the Board of Commissioners and not other offices, such as sheriff or register of deeds.
Ford noted that candidates for sheriff and register of deeds often come from within the ranks of those departments.
Ford and Hall cited the potential conflicts if a county employee opts to run for county commissioner, putting both the candidate’s supervisor and the county manager in a difficult situation ó the employee could become the boss.
They also discussed the possibility an employee might opt to publicly disparage his supervisor and department operations as part of a campaign.
While such comments could be considered insubordination and a fireable offense, Dees said it could also be considered protected political speech.
Ford said he doesn’t want to discourage anyone from being involved in the political process but wants to avoid problems.
Panel members also cited incidents in the past few years in which sitting commissioners were rumored to be angling for county jobs. Ford and Hall said again that creates problems for the manager who does hiring.
The panel appeared to favor a policy similar to the one in place in Henderson County.
Page, who was manager in Wilkes, said that county once had a restrictive policy similar to Henderson, which prohibits all employees from seeking or holding any elected office in county government. Page said a secretary in the sheriff’s department wanted to run for clerk of court ó a state job ó and commissioners modified the policy to allow her to run.
The Wilkes policy allows employees to run for elective office, but they must resign once elected.
Dees said there is case law on both sides, with wide differences between states. In Texas, virtually no restrictions are allowed on an employee seeking public office. In other states, the courts have upheld stringent prohibitions.
Page also noted the Wilkes policy prohibits employees from wearing political T-shirts, buttons or displaying on the job other political paraphernalia for any candidate.
Currently, Rowan has no such prohibition.
Dees said he will provide the committee with a draft next month. The final draft will go to the Board of Commissioners later this year.
Commissioner Jon Barber also attended the meeting.
Contact Jessie Burchette at 704-797-4254.