by Geoff Kelly - posted 10:04 am, July 6, 2009
A couple weeks ago, North District Common Councilmember Joe Golombek initiated a lively floor debate among his fellow legislators by ridiculing a proposed law—a local version of the federal Hatch Act—that would prohibit some city employees from engaging in political activity. The intent of the law, proposed ny South District’s Mickey Kearns and Delaware District’s Mike LoCurto, is to protect employees from being coerced into working on their bosses’ campaigns.
The proposed law is certainly flawed—there’s the First Amendment to consider—but Golombek’s principle objection, two weeks ago and when it was first introduced in September, is that he suspects it amounts to a political attack on Mayor Byron Brown. Two weeks ago he suggested that the Council, if it is truly interested in reform, lead the way by banning political activity among its staff first, before demanding that the executive branch do the same.
Golombek then, as he did last September, suggested that the stories of city workers coerced into doing campaign work were exaggerated. No one ever can produce the name of someone who had been coerced, he said. (Undercutting his own argument, he then told the story of a friend who’d been fired from his job by Mayor James Griffin for supporting a candidate Griffin opposed.) The complaints are always anonymous, he said, and they always seem to indict the political opponents of those who cite them.
But now Jim Heaney at the Buffalo News has found emails from Department of Human Services Commissioner Tanya Perrin-Johnson, expressing her expectation that her staff will volunteer at least eight hours per week to Brown’s re-election campaign. Whike the emails do not threaten consequences for a failure to volunteer, the expressed expectation is coercive enough. Heaney cites the relevant language from the City Charter: “a city officer or employee shall not knowingly request or knowingly authorize anyone else to request in his or her name any direct subordinate of the officer or employee to participate in an election campaign or contribute to a political committee.”
There you go, Joe. A case with real names and documented evidence. And a direct connection to the mayor, in the person of Dana Bobinchek, who was copied on at least one email. Bobinchek, one of Brown’s chief political operatives, works in the mayor’s office.
I don’t know that Kearns’ and LoCurto’s local Hatch Act that’s been sitting in committee for nine months is the answer to this problem. But an answer has to be found. Contrary to popular belief, not every city works like this.