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Reform Hatch Act

Published May 18, 2012 1:01 am

End reach into local, state elections
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The Hatch Act was passed in 1939 to prohibit federal employees from using U.S. government resources to help elect candidates to public office. It has been successful, and that's good. But it also prevents employees of local and state governments who are touched in any way by federal funds from running for nonfederal offices. That's bad, and Congress needs to reform the law.

Just ask former Ogden Police Chief Jon Greiner. The Hatch Act is the reason he is former. While he was still chief, Greiner won election to the Utah Senate in 2006. But during the campaign, someone complained that he had violated the Hatch Act. Any police chief whose department has received a federal law enforcement grant is liable to such a charge, and Greiner was vulnerable because he had been the point man in a successful effort to win federal funds for a new dispatch center in Weber County. Greiner took his seat in the Legislature, but he eventually lost his case against a Hatch Act charge on appeal.

He was prevented from running for a second term, and the city had to fire him or lose a penalty twice his annual pay (he earned $161,000 annually in salary and benefits). Greiner spent $30,000 fighting the charge and the city's insurer got soaked for $293,000 in legal fees.

We're all for the Hatch Act preventing federal employees from using Uncle Sam to bankroll partisan campaigns for federal office, but a case like Greiner's that applies to people running for local or state office goes too far. As in Greiner's case, political opponents often use the law to defeat a candidate at law that they can't beat at the polls. It also unnecessarily penalizes the local government for which the candidate works.

In Salt Lake County, Michael Jensen, chief of the Unified Fire Authority, has been the subject of Hatch Act complaints. He also holds a seat on the Salt Lake County Council. Unlike Greiner, however, he has never been found in violation.

A subcommittee of the U.S. House was in rare bipartisan accord on the need for comprehensive Hatch Act reform when it held a hearing the other day. So was the legal officer who is charged with enforcing the law. Carolyn Lerner of the U.S. Office of Special Counsel said the law is absurd when it applies to local and state elected officials like Greiner, and enforcing it is a waste of her staff's time and government funds. Those resources should be spent chasing federal employees who abuse the public trust, or managers who abuse federal employees.

There are bills in Congress to rein in the Hatch Act. Congress should get the job done before the next election cycle.