The Mono County Board of Supervisors reviewed an ordinance to prohibit political activities on premises owned or leased by Mono County for all County employees, both appointed and elected, at its regular meeting on Tuesday. The proposed ordinance was voted down 3-2.
The proposed Political Activities Ordinance was requested by Supervisor Larry Johnston after he found out that conducting political activity on County premises was illegal for County employees but not elected officials. “There’s a loophole there,” Johnston said. “The current ordinance prohibits our normal employees but it doesn’t say anything about elected officials.”
The issue was raised when District Attorney Tim Kendall and Sheriff Ralph Obenberger brought their ‘in lieu of filing fees’ petitions to a Mono County Management meeting in January. At the end of the meeting, the elected officials, both running for re-election in June, announced the presence of these forms for people to sign.
In their defense, Obenberger said: “We advised that they [those assembled] should not feel obligated whatsoever. The CAO had prior knowledge that this request was going to occur at this meeting. The forms were left out on a table while both District Attorney and I were having various conversations with other managers on different topics of concern.”
The first draft of the Political Activities Ordinance was reviewed at the February 11 Board of Supervisors meeting. At this meeting, Obenberger and Kendall’s actions were repeatedly called a “miscalculation of judgment,” despite the prior knowledge of the CAO’s office. The major issue with the ordinance raised by the Supervisors at the February meeting were the definitions of “working hours,” “political activity,” and “county premises,” given that elected officials are somewhat “always on the job,” and the limited resources in Mono County for venues to conduct political activities involving the public, that aren’t owned by the County.
The real issue, however, seems to be the definition of “employee.” Mono County already has an ordinance that bans “employees” from engaging in political activity on County premise “while engaged in official duties, using County equipment, or wearing an official County uniform.” But according to the Mono County Personnel System section 050 an employee is defined as “Any person holding a position of employment with the County which has been duly established by ordinance or resolution of the Board of Supervisors. This includes appointed Department Heads and appointed officers. It excludes elected Department Heads and elected officials.” Inyo County has a similar ordinance, but includes elected officials in the definition of an employee.
Considering the Board’s comments from the previous meeting, but without changing the language defining an employee, County Counsel Marshall Rudolph returned with an updated version of the ordinance at the Board meeting on Tuesday. He included several exceptions such as “rental or other private use of a County community center by any person or group on the same terms and conditions available to the general public,” and “public gathering where political activity is expressly authorized as part of the gathering.”
District Attorney Tim Kendall addressed the board, citing several examples where the ordinance was open to interpretation and could cause problems. He argued, “this is not an issue in this County and it never has been and I don’t see it being an issue in the future,” Kendall said. He also promised to “follow and enforce the ordinance if passed.” The Board then began it’s own discussion of the ordinance.
“The more you try and ratchet this down, there will still be holes,” Supervisor Stump said before stating he would vote for the ordinance as written.
Supervisor Fesko invoked the State and U.S. Constitution and his oath to uphold both: “They limit the government from imposing laws on citizen’s free speech and that’s exactly what this does. If I’m at a park and someone asks me a question and I give my opinion, that’s my right.”
“We as individual citizens, regardless of our elected position, have a right to speak our mind.” Supervisor Hunt agreed.
“I think have a little more faith in the judgment of candidates and voters in Mono County,” Supervisor Alpers said. “I was prepared to support this ordinance, but right now I think it just discourages people for running from office which is a real problem.”
Johnston continued to defend the ordinance: “I don’t see this as grandiose or over the top. We won’t violate it but there might be someone who does. It’s important that we respond to the issues that come up.”
Still stuck on the citizen’s right to free speech, Fesko rebutted: “We don’t live in Nazi Germany.”
Johnson then made a motion to pass the ordinance and Stump seconded it. Fesko, Alpers and Hunt voted against.
“What’s good for the goose is good for the gander,” observed Johnston afterwards. “Why doesn’t the current limitation on political activity apply to elected officials?”