Q. How can a deputy sheriff serve on an elected school board, when both agencies receive federal funding? I thought the Hatch Act prohibited that situation.
A. The Hatch Act, which was passed in 1939 and amended in 1993, limits the involvement of federal employees in political campaigns.
The Hatch Act comes into play at the local level when an employee holds a state, county or municipal job that is financed by federal loans or grants.
If that is the case, the candidate cannot run for office in partisan elections, use their job to tilt an election or nomination for office, or ask for contributions from other state or local employees, according to a flier distributed by the U.S. Office of Special Counsel.
Brunswick County is one of 15 counties in North Carolina with partisan school board elections. Charlie Miller holds a seat on the board in addition to his day job as the Brunswick County Sheriff’s Department’s chief deputy sheriff, where his duties partly entail managing the budget.
“The first trigger with a state or local person is whether they have some kind of connection to federal money. Often times sheriff’s offices do, but it still matters whether the person has a connection to a grant,” said Ann O’Hanlon, a spokeswoman for federal Office of Special Counsel, which makes Hatch Act rulings.
O’Hanlon used the example of a sheriff’s department receiving a grant concerning seatbelts, saying the two deputies who check the seat belts every week would be covered under the Hatch Act because they are employed, in part, by federal money.
While that may make it appear as if Miller is violating the Hatch Act, he’s protected because the county finance office handles all of the federal grant money for the sheriff’s department.
“You can’t manage federal grant money,” Miller said. “I couldn’t have a direct managerial say so or manager federal grants, which I don’t.”
Miller added that when he was appointed chief deputy by Sheriff John Ingram in 2008, he checked with the Office of Special Counsel, who assured him that he was in the clear as long as he recused himself from school board votes regarding the sheriff’s office.
“They told me if there’s not a conflict, then you’re OK,” Miller said.
The provision regarding local employees could soon be a thing of the past, though. On Nov. 30, Senate unanimously approved changes that would ease restrictions on local employees’ political participation by allowing them to run in partisan elections. The bill still must pass in the House.
“When the current special counsel came into office about a year and a half ago, she saw an overwhelming abuse of this provision,” O’Hanlon said. “She thought that states and localities shouldn’t be affected by a federal law.”
Date posted: December 5, 2012
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