It isn't often a public official is forced to quit for violating a law and the community and government for which he works is outraged — about the law. That was the case this week in Ogden, however, when Police Chief Jon Greiner was grudgingly fired, and it is becoming the case more frequently around the nation.
What is clear is that the Hatch Act, passed in 1939, needs to be revised in order to allow local officials to continue to participate in the democratic process. As it is, the act places nonsensical restrictions on too many workers who have no conflicts that ought to prohibit them from seeking local or state office.
Greiner was fired because Ogden receives federal grants and loans to help with police work. The Hatch Act prohibits government workers from taking part in political campaigns if any part of their salaries comes from federal funds. Greiner served in the Utah Senate.
A similar cloud hangs over state Rep. Mike Noel, who directs the Kane County Water Conservancy District, which receives money from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers. The Alliance for a Better Utah, a left-leaning advocacy group, has filed a complaint that could cost him his legislative seat.
Across the nation, there is evidence that people are increasingly using the Hatch Act as a convenient way to wield a sledge hammer against political enemies. But the law has no relevance to corruption or fitness for office on the state and local levels. It is becoming more and more of a nuisance as federal funding finds its way into more local government functions.
In a recent New York Times opinion piece, Carolyn N. Lerner, head of the United States Office of Special Counsel, said her office handled 526 Hatch Act complaints in 2010 compared to 98 in 2000. The office also advised people 4,320 times concerning questions about the law in 2010. "Increasingly, the act is being used as a political weapon to disqualify otherwise well-qualified candidates, even when there is no indication of wrongdoing," she wrote.
Congress passed the law in 1939 after complaints that Democratic Party officials were using the federal Works Progress Administration to gain votes for the party. Named for New Mexico Sen. Carl Hatch, the act sought to keep politics out of the federal workplace and to eliminate any chance of bribery or coercion of federal employees to support a candidate or cause. It grew out of the spirit of civil service reform that had spread through the country since the late 19th century.
There is nothing wrong with the law's prohibition of such activity. However, the law clearly goes too far when it keeps people from running for local office simply because their day jobs happen to be for an agency that receives some sort of federal grant or loan.
Lerner would like Congress to change the law so that state and local government workers can run for office without restrictions. That makes sense. By many accounts, Greiner was a competent police chief. Given all the conflicts of interest that exist in a part-time citizen Legislature, it makes no sense for him to have to leave his job simply because he served in the state Senate.