Politics & Government

Fresno County weighing new restrictions on employees who seek elected office

2018: Andrew Janz, why are you running for Congress?

Democratic Congressional candidate Andrew Janz tells why he has decided to pursue the low-probability of unseating incumbent Devin Nunes in California's 22nd District during a Fresno Bee editorial board meeting.
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Democratic Congressional candidate Andrew Janz tells why he has decided to pursue the low-probability of unseating incumbent Devin Nunes in California's 22nd District during a Fresno Bee editorial board meeting.

Fresno County is considering a new rule that would require most county employees to take unpaid leave – up to four months in an election year – when they seek elected office, according to an early draft of the rule obtained by The Bee.

Current elected officials and department heads are exempt from the rule, which stipulates each employee must take 60 days of unpaid leave prior to each election date. It would apply to candidates for any salaried, full-time post, such as state and federal offices as well as certain local offices, such as Fresno mayor or Fresno City Council.

Employees may also substitute paid vacation time for part or all of the 60-day periods.

Supervisor Buddy Mendes, the architect of the drafted rule, said it provided clarity and ensured candidates were not campaigning on county time – something he publicly accused deputy district attorney Andrew Janz of doing during the 2018 congressional election.

Janz and other Democrats oppose the proposed requirement, which they believe is retaliatory and clearly protects those already in power while stifling any possible opposition.

A draft of the rule was recently sent to the more than two dozen unions representing various county employee groups. The unions are invited to meet with the county for clarification and discussion of the new rule, which will be subject to final approval by the Board of Supervisors.

Mendes’ new rule

Mendes said it could be weeks or months before the approval vote could take place.

“This isn’t a personal deal,” Mendes said Friday. “We are a chartered county with few rules, and sometimes that means we’re a lawless county. Every once in a while, we need new rules to level the playing field.”

The rule was drafted by a board subcommittee consisting of Mendes and Chairman Nathan Magsig, who worked with the county’s staff and attorneys to craft the language.

Mendes said the rule should have been in place years ago, as the lack of clear guidelines for employees seeking office puts pressure on department heads to cover for candidates as they leave or alter work patterns for campaign events.

Janz and others were campaigning on county time in 2018, Mendes said. Janz also tried to take leave in order to campaign but was denied, Mendes said, adding that this rule would now clean up those types of issues.

“We don’t have any rules, and the system gets abused,” Mendes said.

Mendes said Janz sought two months of leave, but it was denied by Smittcamp in part because she did not have a specific rule to cite in granting it.

Fresno County District Attorney Lisa Smittcamp has denied that Janz campaigned while on the clock. The accusation was floated by Rep. Devin Nunes, Janz’s 2018 opponent, in a series of attack ads leading up to the election.

Smittcamp could not be reached for comment on Friday.

Mendes, a staunch Republican serving in a nonpartisan office, said the new requirement was not politically motivated. He likened it to federal rules that require congressional staffers to resign when seeking partisan office.

He also noted that employees who seek office within their own department, such as an undersheriff or captain running for sheriff, are exempt. This is particularly important in departments like the clerk’s office, Mendes said, where qualified subordinates often replace retiring elected positions with “no learning curve or agenda.”

Fresno County GOP Chair Fred Vanderhoof said he agreed with Mendes’ new rule, saying it was “common sense” that someone spending the many hours it takes to run for office would have some sort of plan worked out with their employer.

“There’s always a complication between any person running for office and their private employer, as well,” Vanderhoof said. “It takes so much time and effort to run. And we need people to do that, but there’s no question it hurts the businesses that they work at.”

Democratic rebuttal

Janz, who is eying a potential 2020 bid for Fresno mayor, was incensed when he learned of the proposed rule change. He accused Mendes, whom he openly feuded with during the 2018 campaign, of using a “fake controversy” manufactured by Nunes to impose a prohibitive policy on thousands of county workers.

“The Board of Supervisors’ proposal that would force county employees to go unpaid for four months out of the year simply because an employee is seeking elected office on his/her own time is not only unconstitutional, it’s an attack on working-class families,” Janz said.

“I know of at least five Fresno County employees who have run for elected office in the past year. There were no instances that I’m aware of where a candidate/employee had issues separating his/her campaign from county duties,” he added.

Fellow Fresno prosecutor Sally Moreno successfully defeated Madera County District Attorney David Linn and Madera senior prosecutor Paul Hornick for Madera’s top prosecutor spot in 2018.

Both Janz and Moreno filled special roles created within the Fresno DA’s office for prosecutors seeking office. These positions fill in for other prosecutors as needed and allow more flexibility for vacation/sick day use.

Fresno County Democratic Party Chair Michael Evans also criticized the rule, saying it created “one set of rules for who the powers that be like and another set of rules for who they don’t like.”

“The proposed initiative is a blatant effort at incumbent protection and conveniently exempts ‘elected officials or appointed department heads,’ which would include Mendes,” Evans said.

Evans said the county already has rules in place that adequately address the campaigning issue.

Union has questions

Amy Cobb, president of the Fresno County Prosecutors Association, said the union has seen the proposed rule but isn’t ready to take a position on it..

Cobb said the union wants clarifications on city council race rules, the specifics surrounding primary vs. general elections and what happens if an employee is elected under the rule and then seeks re-election down the line.

“We have a lot of attorneys who seek office, be it city council races or the bench or within our own office,” Cobb said.

Cobb said the association will soon meet with the county to ask its questions.

Smittcamp was a prosecutor but resigned about a year prior to running against and ultimately defeating her former boss, Elizabeth Egan, in 2014. (Note: The original story incorrectly reported that Smittcamp was still working as a prosecutor when she ran for the office.)

And Clovis City Councilman Bob Whalen is a prosecutor, serving as Janz’s supervisor. He is entering his 17th year on the Clovis council.

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Rory Appleton is a fourth-generation Fresnan who covers politics for his hometown newspaper. A Fresno State graduate, he has won six first-place California News Publishers Association awards and a McClatchy President’s Award for his reporting and column writing over the last two years.