Under terms of a recently amended ordinance, Salt Lake city employees can now hold some partisan political offices; but should members of the city attorney's office be permitted the same privilege?
No, according to City Attorney Roger Cutler, who said partisan politics would undermine the credibility of the city's legal department."As long as I'm here I will fight having my office politicized," he said.
Tuesday, the City Council amended the city's Political Activity Ordinance so that city employees can run for and serve in the Legislature or city councils other than Salt Lake City's.
The ordinance once restricted employees from most elective offices and still prohibits employees from holding state political party offices.
But the council in November is scheduled to consider whether employees can run for those high-level party offices, such as a state political party chairman, said Council Community Relations Coordinator Cindy Gust-Jenson.
Cutler, however, told the council last week that he has serious reservations about his attorneys being involved in partisan politics while representing the city in legal actions.
"I think there are areas such as my office that should have more restrictions," he told the council.
The issue is particularly relevant because City Planner and legislative candidate Chris Shulz told the council that he petitioned for the amendment in part because Assistant City Attorney Bruce Baird is considering running for state Democratic chairman.
Baird told the Deseret News that he has been asked to consider running for the seat. Cutler said holding the office would be inappropriate.
"That responsibility is so entwined with partisan politics that it's not compatible with the way I run my office,' he said.
If political positions were held by city attorneys, the non-partisan city attorney's office would inappropriately become, in effect, an outlet for partisan opinion, Cutler said.
Utah's legal department takes a similar position. In the attorney general's office, state statute allows assistant attorneys to hold non-partisan offices such as city council seats, Chief Deputy Attorney Paul Tinker said.
But the state prohibits attorneys from holding office in political parties and, under separation-of-powers language in the state constitution, attorneys cannot serve in the Legislature, he said.
Reps. R. Mont Evans and Janet Rose work under the executive branch. They continue to serve in the Legislature but are being sued by the attorney general on grounds they are violating the separation of powers.
No policy exists at the county level that would prohibit county attorneys from engaging in partisan politics, Deputy County Attorney Gavin Anderson said, but the issue never has been confronted. Cutler points out that the attorney general's and county attorney's offices are headed by elective officials, and partisan activity might be thought of as more acceptable there.
"But it's my opinion that a non-partisan, professional office needs to be above suspicion' created by political pressure, Cutler said.