Bolton: Richland’s Jackson saved by change in Hatch Act

Associate EditorMarch 14, 2013 

 

TIM DOMINICK/TDOMINICK@THESTATE.

WHILE I’M no fan of the law that nearly led to Norman Jackson being booted off of Richland County Council, let’s be clear about why federal officials will no longer pursue the case against the two-term councilman.

It’s not that Mr. Jackson was never in violation of the law prohibiting public employees whose jobs use federal money from seeking office in partisan elections. He indeed was.

But Mr. Jackson managed to stay in his dual roles as a County Council member and a planner at the state Department of Transportation by putting up a lengthy fight over roughly four years, during which time Congress got serious about changing the admittedly flawed law. Congress did make changes in January that now allow Mr. Jackson to stay in office.

A federal administrative law judge dismissed the case last month, and officials who administer the 1939 Hatch Act won’t pursue the case any further now that the law has been changed.

But don’t misread that to mean that Mr. Jackson was proved to be right in his fight. The fact is that he should have obeyed the law and stepped down from the council or changed jobs long ago.

I don’t say that because I want to see Mr. Jackson off the council. I say that because that was the law, and no one is supposed to be above the law — not a Richland County Council member or any other elected official. As a matter of fact, we should expect that the public officials who pass laws and ordinances for others to obey would set an example for the rest of us.

You can’t disobey or ignore the law simply because you don’t agree with it. Or because isn’t in your favor. Or because it doesn’t make sense.

And let me be clear: Parts of this law have never made sense to me; some of its provisions are unfair and impractical. The intent of the law is understandable; it seeks to keep politics and coercion out of the federal workplace. We don’t want government employees using their jobs to win favor with voters, pressuring employees to volunteer for or contribute to their campaign or taking bribes.

But the fact that the law covers not only federal offices but state and local candidates whose personal jobs are tied to federal funds is problematic, as in Mr. Jackson’s case.

While a case wasn’t formally brought against Richland County Council Chairman Kelvin Washington, there had been questions as to whether he also was in violation of the law. Mr. Washington also once worked at the state Department of Transportation. Although Mr. Washington left his job at Transportation, some questioned whether his new job as a director of rural outreach at S.C. State University’s federally funded James E. Clyburn Transportation Center placed him in violation.

For his part, Mr. Jackson continually argued that he was not in violation of the law because the Department of Transportation doesn’t receive federal grants, as was contended. The gas tax revenue the agency receives is an appropriation, not a grant, he said.

Such semantics were unlikely to change the minds of those at the Office of Special Counsel, which enforces the Hatch Act. But now that the law has changed, a spokeswoman for the federal agency says the case will be dropped without objection. She said the case is among dozens the agency closed once Congress relaxed regulations in January.

The change will be a boost to those public employees who want to run for state or local offices but work for agencies receiving any federal funds. The only employees who would be prohibited from seeking partisan office would be those whose positions are fully funded with federal money.

Mr. Jackson has always said that the reason he fought so hard was to have an opportunity to continue to serve the citizens of Lower Richland and Richland County.

Well, now he’ll get that opportunity, thanks to Congress.

I’d like to think that Mr. Jackson’s experience — and that of Councilman Washington — would cause local and state officials in South Carolina to revisit the notion of making most elected county offices nonpartisan. While the Hatch Act prohibits federal employees from running in partisan elections, it doesn’t prohibit them from participating in nonpartisan elections. Had County Council been a nonpartisan office, Mr. Jackson never would have run into any problems.

Getting around the unfairness of the Hatch Act isn’t the only reason to make county council races nonpartisan. Garbage collection, water and sewer service and road resurfacing aren’t partisan issues. There is no such thing as a Democratic or Republican sewer plant or dirt road, but officials from opposing parties too often tend to find a way to squabble over them. In the process, residents get hurt because of uneven, inconsistent services. Not only that, but partisan politics on the local level destroys citizens’ trust and expectations of government.

That’s why county councils, like school boards and city councils, should be elected on a nonpartisan basis. Other offices, such as auditor, clerk of court, treasurer and coroner, should be nonpartisan as well — and preferably appointed rather than elected.

Over the years, various county councils (including Richland’s) and legislators have asked the Legislature to remove party labels from those local offices, but have never gotten enough support.

If Mr. Jackson really thinks what happened to him wasn’t fair, I wonder if he’d be willing to take up this worthwhile cause that would protect federal employees who want to run for county office. He’s proven he’s a fighter. And I’d be in his corner on this one.

Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or wbolton@thestate.com.

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