More on politicking by city employees

We posted earlier this week about a city Ethics Board ruling that will allow a lawyer for City Council, Shoshana Bricklin, to circulate her own nominating petitions to run for judge, without giving up her job on City Council. As long as she doesn’t publicly announce her candidacy, the board said, she could stay on the Council payroll until she officially becomes a candidate by filing those petitions. Until then, she could be viewed as just “testing the waters” for a possible candidacy, the Ethics Board ruled.

Turns out, the situation is more complicated – and the ruling less significant – than we thought.

 The City Charter’s resign-to-run requirement forces city employees to resign their jobs if they want to seek public office, and the standard for deciding whether someone is a candidate is two-pronged – either a public announcement that they’re running, or the filing of nominating petitions, whichever comes first. So Bricklin is not a candidate until she files ­– if she’s careful to tell the people signing her petitions that she’s just considering a run for judge, that she hasn’t yet made a decision.

But the Ethics Board’s executive director, Shane Creamer, called our attention to another set of regulations, interpreting another City Charter provision that says none of the city’s appointed officers or employees shall “take part in the management or affairs of any political party or in any political campaign, except to exercise his right as a citizen privately to express his opinion and to cast his vote.”  This provision WOULD prohibit most city employees from circulating their own nominating petitions ­– but not City Council employees, who were exempted when the Ethics Board adopted political activity regulations in March 2011.

How did City Council employees get exempted from the stay-out-of-politics rule that applies to the rest of the city payroll? That’s the real story here, and we can’t do much more than speculate about it.

Abraham L. Freedman, a member of the commission that wrote the City Charter, became city solicitor in 1952. In spite of the clear language in the Charter itself, Freedman got an inquiry from the City Council president, then wrote a six-page legal opinion exempting Council employees from that section. If Council members were free to engage in political activity, he held, it would be “inconsistent” to expect that their aides would be prohibited ­ -- though the same argument could be extended throughout the city payroll, to everyone working for elected officials in non-Civil Service jobs.

Some 59 years later, the modern Ethics Board allowed that exemption to stand –though it tightened the rules, telling Council employees they could not politick inside government buildings, or on city time, and could not get involved on the financial side of campaigns, by soliciting contributions or serving as a campaign treasurer.