A federal review has cleared Unified Fire Authority Chief Michael Jensen to run for a fourth term on the Salt Lake County Council.
The U.S. Office of Special Counsel last week rejected a complaint by Utah Democrats that Republican Jensen's re-election bid violated the federal Hatch Act. That law bars government employees who oversee federal funds (or are paid with them) from seeking or holding partisan elected offices.
Jensen has represented District 2, covering northwest Salt Lake County, since the county switched to a mayor-council government in 2001. He will face Democrat Brent Goodfellow in November's general election.
"We find that you are not currently covered by the Hatch Act, and your candidacy for re-election is not in violation of the law," said a May 22 decision from Office of Special Counsel attorney Mary Larsen.
In a complaint filed in mid-March on behalf of the state and county Democratic parties, Democratic stalwart Joe Hatch contended Jensen should be prohibited from running for political office while serving as fire chief for the same reason that the federal Merit Systems Protection Board forced Ogden Police Chief Jon Greiner to leave his post in December.
Greiner violated the Hatch Act, the board ruled, because he oversaw his Police Department's use of federal funding while then serving as a member of the Utah Senate.
Jensen responded to the complaint with documents showing that the Unified Fire Authority Board has set up a clear line of authority that put the UFA's deputy chief over all matters involving federal funding and made the deputy chief not Jensen answerable to the board on all issues surrounding use of those funds.
With Jensen's acceptance of this firewall, federal attorney Larsen wrote, "the board has implemented a real separation between you and any federally funded activities."
But, she added, "please be aware that should you have even the slightest involvement [with federally funded activities], you would be covered by the Hatch Act."
Jensen said Wednesday he hopes the ruling ends Democratic efforts to eliminate him as a candidate, noting he also successfully overcame a Hatch Act challenge in 2008, when he was deputy fire chief.
"I'm grateful to the UFA Board for putting the [separation of duties] policy and plan in place," he said. "They have trust and faith in me to run the department, and they want me to continue my political career."
Ultimately, Jensen added, voters will have to decide if his dual role benefits or hurts them and he is confident his background is an asset.
"I've never backed away from the fact I'm a firefighter. It's on every piece of my campaign literature, every billboard I have out there," he said. "I think me being a firefighter factors into citizens' decisions. I fight every day for their lives and property, and I will fight for them in the council. My profession has a lot to do with my personality."
Hatch disagrees with the Office of Special Counsel's interpretation of the act, but does not intend to challenge the ruling.
"Clearly, there needs to be reform in the Hatch Act," he said, noting that this decision helps make the 1939 law "all form and no substance."
"It seems silly to me," Hatch added. "Do we really want our fire chiefs and police chiefs involved in partisan politics? Don't we want them to be above that?"
Salt Lake County Council race
Republican Michael Jensen is seeking a fourth four-year term representing District 2 on the Salt Lake County Council in November's general election. Former Democratic state Rep. Brent Goodfellow is challenging him.