One of the great promises of American life is that any citizen can run for elected office. If someone wants to enter the public sphere and serve, he or she has only to qualify for the ballot, make the case for election and let the voters decide.
The Fresno County Board of Supervisors is considering subverting that simple promise, however, with a new personnel policy that would make running for office a heavy burden, if not impossible. The idea should be scrapped.
Under the proposal by Supervisors Nathan Magsig and Buddy Mendes, any county employee who wants to campaign would have to take a leave of absence from work. A worker could use any accrued time to make up for lost earnings.
The supervisors say that such a policy would bring uniformity to how the county deals with work time for its employees who seek political office. On its face, that seems reasonable and fair.
Magsig says the issue came to a head last year when a number of employees ran for office. Some people approached the board anonymously to complain that staffers were using work time to campaign.
The intent of the proposal is to set boundaries for all 7,000 employees while safeguarding the taxpayers’ investment, Magsig says, adding he thinks workers running for office is a good thing for democracy.
But few county employees accrue enough hours to be able to take the necessary time off from work to mount full campaigns. Their only other option would be leave with no pay or benefits.
The policy would also exempt elected officials. An elected leader seeking re-election would keep getting a paycheck; a staff person in that leader’s department who might want that job would have to take leave without pay or use accrued time.
So instead of fostering and encouraging democratic participation, the policy would actually discourage it, to the benefit of those in power.
Andrew Janz, a county deputy district attorney, is running for Fresno mayor. He believes the policy is targeting him. Janz, a Democrat, ran against Republican congressman Devin Nunes of Tulare last year and had a strong showing against the longtime incumbent.
Janz says Mendes, the conservative from Riverdale, has it out for him and is using the guise of campaigning on work time as an excuse to hurt his mayoral run.
Mendes deferred questions about the policy to Magsig, who denies the policy is aimed at anyone. But Janz has put the board on notice that he will sue over what he says are violations of the state Labor Code if the rules are passed.
Section 1101 of the Labor Code says this: “No employer shall make, adopt, or enforce any rule, regulation or policy: (a) Forbidding or preventing employees from engaging or participating in politics or from becoming candidates for office.”
While the supervisors will say their proposal does not forbid or prevent employees from running for office, Janz says it does just that. A judge would likely have to decide.
That political intrigue aside, the proposal is an overreach. The policy implies distrust of county managers to properly oversee their departments. Ideally, the supervisors allow those managers to make sure the necessary work is getting done on county time. If not, the managers then have to do what they are hired to do — manage their employees.
Janz’s boss, District Attorney Lisa Smittcamp, was steadfast in her determination that he did not abuse work time while campaigning last year against Nunes. But Mendes seemingly cannot accept that finding.
That said, the issue is bigger than Janz vs. Mendes. The Board of Supervisors should shelve this idea and let county department heads manage their staffs without interference. In so doing, the board would show its support for full-participation democracy.