County Employees Running For Office Better Watch Out

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Matt Harper, former deputy chief of staff to Supervisor Janet Nguyen who quietly transferred to the Orange County trash agency last month while preparing a run for the Assembly, has been officially warned to avoid any political activities while working as public affairs manager at OC Waste & Recycling for the next year.

Citing Voice of OC coverage of Harper’s transfer, Chip Monaco, deputy director for government and community relations at OC Waste & Recycling, said he sought and received a special county counsel opinion on Oct. 25 noting the political limitations on county workers who choose to run for office.

“You can’t do anything,” Monaco said about the general tone of the county counsel opinion, which was obtained by Voice of OC.

The restrictions are largely the result of a 1978 case, People v. Battin, that resulted in sanctions against a county supervisor for using staff time and resources during a political campaign.

From the opinion written by Senior Deputy County Counsel Christopher J. Miller:

In a nutshell: It is not legal to use county funds or anything paid for with county funds for a purpose not authorized by law, and use of county resources to advocate for one side or the other in an election contest generally is not authorized by law.

This prohibition covers, but is not limited to, the use for election advocacy or campaigning of county vehicles, county computers, county Email, county “In” boxes, county copiers and county phones (including County cell phones, Blackberry devices and similar devices).

Other restrictions mentioned in Miller’s opinion include:

  • County funds may not be used to produce or distribute more than 200 unsolicited copies per month of any document that “features” an elected official, even if that document is politically neutral. Presumably, the prohibition applies to such documents as the newsletters published by most county supervisors’ offices.
  • Neither candidates for county office nor county officials or employees may solicit political contributions from county employees or applicants for county employment.
  • No campaign contributions may be received or delivered in any county office or building.
  • Any public worker whose “primary” job is connected to federally financed activities is covered by the federal Hatch Act. Those workers may not be involved in soliciting or obtaining contributions of any value for a political party, and they may not be a candidate for elective public office in a partisan election.

Monaco said he sought the legal opinion after the Voice of OC story on Harper’s transfer from Nguyen’s office to the trash agency “to make sure I’m giving him adequate supervision.”

This isn’t the first time that the issue of campaigning while at work has come up in Orange County.

In 2006, 16 counts of criminal charges were dropped against sheriff’s Capt. Christine Murray after she agreed to apologize to fellow employees for discussing contributions to the campaign of former Sheriff Mike Carona.

In 2008, then Acting Sheriff Jack Anderson criticized the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs for sending an email inviting deputies to attend a fundraiser for Bill Hunt, who was running for sheriff.

That same year Anderson himself was criticized by the state attorney general for attending a San Clemente City Council meeting in uniform to criticize Hunt.

Monaco said Harper was hired as a public affairs manager because “we’re leveraging his relationships and experience with local government in a public affairs role.”

That kind of leveraging with top officials from county supervisors’ offices isn’t unusual at OC Waste & Recycling. Monaco himself transferred from Supervisor Pat Bates’ office.

And Denis Bilodeau, now chief of staff for Supervisor Shawn Nelson, also sat at the agency for a few months last year after working for county Supervisor Chris Norby, who was elected to the Assembly.

Monaco said Harper has yet to do much public affairs work at the department because he’s been “getting acclimated to the department” by touring landfills, reading business plans and being briefed by staff. Harper has two staffers working directly for him, as well as help from a few additional staffers in the department.

While Monaco confirmed that the position ultimately filled by Harper had been previously frozen as a result of the county’s hiring freeze, he said the position was needed.

Monaco said he expected Harper to become a central player at OC Waste & Recycling as the agency’s main liaison with the “highly complex” network of state legislative and rule-making bodies and personnel.

Yet if Harper’s stated goal of winning election in Assembly District 72 materializes, he won’t be at the agency for even a year.

But that is not distracting Monaco.

“I’m not viewing him as one year and out. That’s for the voters to decide,” Monaco said.

Please contact Norberto Santana Jr. directly at nsantana@voiceofoc.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/vocnorberto.

 

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