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The Hatch Hitch

As anyone who’d bother to read this post knows, South District Councilmember Mickey Kearns and Delaware District Councilmember Mike LoCurto submitted a resolution asking the city’s law department to draft a statute banning some city employees from engaging in politicking. The resolution, they say, is a response to complaints that workers in City Hall are made to carry petitions, donate to campaigns, and canvass for candidates whom the mayor instructs them to support. (I’m having trouble downloading the text, so no link, sorry.) This mini Hatch Act—so called because it is a local version of the federal law—is intended, say Kearns and LoCurto, to protect city employees from being pressured by their superiors to do political work.

Niagara District Councilmember David Rivera and Council President Dave Franczyk signed onto the resolution, and the fifth man in the majority coalition, Lovejoy’s Rich Fontana, voted yea to send the resolution to the legislative committee.

That’s where it ran into attorney Peter Reese, who excoriated the measure for 10 or 15 excruciatingly funny minutes. (I don’t watch City Hall TV myself, or whatever it’s called, because I don’t have cable; if you do, and if such things interest you, try to catch Reese’s performance.)

Reese said the proposed legislation did not represent reform at all, that in fact it was “politics as usual.” He called the proposed legislation anti-union, because as written it could make union activity grounds for dismissal.

Edit: Mike LoCurto tells me I have misunderstood the section of the proposed legislation that led me to write what is now in brackets and italics below: “The exemption would only be for employees who are currently committeemembers,” LoCurto write. “They could remain committeemenmbers for their current two-year term. They would not be permitted to donate to campaigns during that time.”

[He said it was racist, for several reasons, not least of which is this: Current employees would be grandfathered, so they could still politick. Only new employees would be excluded from political activity. If you sort city employees by councilmanic district and race, you’ll find a preponderance of white South Buffalonians. New Latino hires from the Lower West Side? You can’t campaign for a candidate from your community. New African-American hires from Cold Springs? You don’t get to pass petitions for you next door neighbor whose running for Common Council.

White guy from South Buffalo who has had a job since the Griffin administration and never fails to drop $50 into the hat at a Goin’ South beer bash? Keep writing those checks.]

(Later in the hearing, North District Councilmember Joe Golombek pointed out that a ban on City Hall employees politicking would deprive the mayor of some of his ground troops in his re-election bid next year; meantime, county and local state employees, who tend to align with the county chairman, would remain free to campaign for the mayor’s opponent.)

Reese said the legislation had been misnamed: Instead of the “City of Buffalo Employee Protection Act,” it ought to be called the “Minority Exclusion Act of 2008.”

Worst of all, he said, it created a “political superclass.” Only folks like plow drivers, clerks, cashiers, sanitation workers, etc. would be prohibited from politicking. Appointees who serve at the pleasure of the mayor, the comptroller, or the council—immediate staff of the three branches of city government, in other words, the people who are closest to politicians and most overtly political to begin with—would not be covered by this mini Hatch Act.

It compromises First Amendment rights, Reese said. And state courts have already ruled that passing designating petitions for a political candidate is an absolute right of every citizen.

“And these are the things I like about this bill,” Reese said.

After singling out the councilmembers who had written or supported the resolution for individual scorn, Reese concluded by recommending that the council emapnel a citizens commission to study opportunities for true reform, similar to the commission he served on for Erie County.

Reese’s performance was persuasive, and it unleashed the political hounds: Bonnie Russell thanked Reese and said she agreed completely, that she thought the whole measure unconstitutional and a political exercise. Brian Davis lit into the legislation and its sponsors and their political motivations, calling it “bad with a capital B and an exclamation point.” He moved to receive and file the legislation, hoping to halt its course that day; this was a meaningless gesture, however, since the Council had already, in adopting the resolution, instructed the law department to begin reviewing the legislation. Nonetheless, committee chair Golombek seconded the motion. Franczyk pointed out the futility of the motion, and eventually it was withdrawn.

LoCurto and Rivera offered defenses of the measure and its intentions.They reminded councilmembers and Reese that this was a draft, that the law department would put together a better piece of work before it came before the Council for a vote.

Golombek, in a long and mostly well considered response, said he didn’t fully believe the stories about employees being pressured by their bosses to do campaign work or make donations, because no one had ever come to him with such a story. (He added, “If we can’t fire [city employees] for incompetence, how can we fire someone for having the wrong sign on their lawn?”) No one had come forward and offered the name of someone to whom this had happened, so he didn’t believe it was as common a practice as the mayor’s opponents alleged.

That may have been a little disingenuous of Golombek; it is an issue, and everybody knows it—in both our city and county halls, there is a long tradition of compelled donations and campaign work. I’ve heard stories, and I’ve been given names, but if I told them the people who told me would feel at risk. (The threat isn’t so much that you might lose your job. It’s more like you might find you office has been moved to some otherwise abandoned floor where the bathroom doesn’t work.) Employees who feel they’re being pushed illegally to do something they don’t want to have recourse through their unions and the courts, certainly, but not everyone is spoiling for a fight. The existence of laws and protections that are supposed to prevent compelled political activity don’t work any better than our campaign finance laws.

Nonetheless, this legislation is a bad idea. Masten District Councilmember Demone Smith had it right when he called the measure “prohibition sold as protection.” Though it is the more difficult task by far, we need to find a way to expose and punish the perpetrators rather than restrict the victims.

  • Peter A Reese

    While I sympathize with government employees who feel pressured to participate in political support of a particular regime, I am reminded of the words of John Curr of the NYCLU,”You cannot legislate courage.” While resisting political pressure may have unpleasant consequences, many individuals have given their lives for the rights abd privileges we enjoy. With this in mind, how much sympathy can I have for someone who is willing to forfeit such rights because his supervisor might become angry? I have been a union activist and whistleblower. I know what it is like to be abused for standing up to “The Man”. But I’m still here and breathing. The sun still rises and sets for me.

    Is it the job of the Common Council to insert backbones in timid city workers? No law can do that. Government workers already enjoy job protections which private sector employees would literally die for. If people choose to live on their knees it is a choice they will have to live with. Protecting people by stripping them of their constitutional rights in return for a paycheck is not something I want to see in Buffalo.

  • Joe Golombek

    I believe I would have been disingenuous had I not offered an alternative to the current plan being submitted by several of my colleagues. In order to get further away from this type of alleged behavior I believe we need a city manager form of government. That is why I have resubmitted a resolution that I originally sponsored four or so years ago calling for a committee to explore the option.

  • jean

    It’s a working document. Maybe if some of the Councilmembers stopped spinning on behalf of the Mayor they could actually DISCUSS what’s before them and come to a compromise. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ban City employees from donating to City campaigns.

  • I am happy that this proposal has generated this much heat. It draws much needed attention to a long time problem – political activity as a prerequisite to employment and promotion. And let’s be clear, everyone knows this is not just simple threats like “donate or lose your job.” People put in for promotion and know they have to support the “right” candidates to be considered. Seasonal workers desperately trying to become permanent have to carry petitions and donate or they remain seasonal. The threats also extend to relatives. If your nephew is trying to become permanent then you better get involved in the “right” campaign too. Finally, even if your actual job is not threatened the working environment can become so toxic that the individual employee can’t do their job. This is why morale in City Hall is abysmal. Anyone saying this is not city hall reality just isn’t telling the truth. Everyone, everyone, everyone knows this is how it works. And everyone knows under Steve Casey the abuses have become egregious. The real question, and its legitimate, is how to balance the rights of people to be politically involved with the legitimate city interests of ensuring employees first and foremost do the jobs they are paid to do without political threats. Unfortunately, the rhetoric from the Mayor’s mouthpieces is so disingenuous that we can’t even get to the real debate that should be had.

  • I have been following this story with some amusement. The Hatch Act critics are acting like seeking to reform the corrupt system of pressing governmental employees into political work is somehow novel. Beginning in the 1880 the Federal Government sought to limit political activity by governmental employees. The Hatch Act in its current form was pushed in 1939 by a Democratic Senator after strong allegations that the Democratic President, FDR, was using WPA employees to work on Democratic campaigns. The Democratic Senator Hatch ended the practice of leaning on employees to do political work. The Hatch Act has virtually eliminated the practice of using Federal rank and file employees to do political work. Have you ever heard a IRS or Social Security worker say “I have to work for Clinton or I will get fired.” Nope, because it has been eliminated by the Hatch Act. It is a good law that brought about a huge sea change in the lives of government employees.
    We all know that this type of pressure is alive and well in City and County Governments and should be ended. Wouldn’t it be nice if the guy who was hired to clean City Hall actually cleaned City Hall. Wouldn’t it be nice if any of our post WWII Mayors had to run for re-election based on their records and not have re-election virtually guaranteed by a coerced army of City Hall workers. Reform is good. Do not be afraid.

  • Sean Cooney

    There most certainly is some undue pressure on public employees to support the candidates that their bosses do and this law would put a clear end to the pressure. However, the most important reason for this law is not captured it its title or in any of the commentary so far.

    The most compelling reason is to ensure that public confidence in government is not undermined by the notion of the “poltical hack.” The truth is when hundreds of City employees are knocking on our doors, asking for our signatures, standing at our polling places , running as committee members, and managaing campaigns our city suffers. The appearance, whether true or not, is that our City government is putting politics before policy, signatures before service, and their committee races before their community. More than anything else, this appearance is the cause of Buffalonians lack of confidence in our government and in our City.

    This law is a bold and deliberate attempt to finally fundamentally and structurally alter the overly rabid poltical culuture within our City. We will all be better off when it is passed. This law will be a test of who talks reform and who truly will put reform before re-election.

  • WNYMind

    The hatch act for city workers would be great, but getting rid of the redundant patronage workers and letting the civil servants actually do their work would be better. END PATRONAGE JOBS!!!!!

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  • lanres

    One needs only to go to City Hall – Law Department – look through the bullet proof glass at the reception window – look straight a head to see a “Vote Democrat” sticker facing you. There is no other party signs visible and speaks volumes as to why City workers feel pressured.