Unions fire at mayor's order
by: BRIAN BARBER World Staff Writer
Saturday, February 19, 2011
2/19/2011 6:18:45 AM
Read Mayor Dewey Bartlett’s executive order.
Read the letter from the U.S. Office of Special Counsel.
Union leaders may mount a legal challenge to Mayor Dewey Bartlett's recent executive order that cites the City Charter and the federal Hatch Act in prohibiting employees from actively participating in municipal election campaigns.
American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 1180, Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 93 and Tulsa Firefighters Local 176 representatives all told the Tulsa World this week they are reviewing their options with attorneys.
"We see this as a blatant power grab," said Michael Rider, local AFSCME president. "It's pretty Napoleonic, actually. I guess if the mayor had his way, we'd all be speaking French."
FOP political consultant Victor Ajlouny also referred to the mayor as trying to be a dictator.
"This is a veiled attempt at intimidating U.S. citizens from exercising their constitutional rights," he said.
Firefighters union President Dennis Moseby said he's sure the mayor's action is going to lead to a fight.
"I can't imagine us just standing by and letting this go," he said. "What that means at this point, I don't know."
Bartlett, who is on a city business trip to Taiwan, was unavailable for comment.
But Mayoral Chief of Staff Terry Simonson said the order, which was vetted by interim City Attorney David Pauling, is simply spelling out what is legally prohibited.
"This isn't a political doctrine or the mayor's personal philosophy," he said. "In our view, this is absolutely crystal clear in the City Charter, and we are making that known well in advance of this year's elections."
All nine council seats and the auditor's position are up for election this fall. The mayor is not up for re-election until 2013.
The charter specifies that "no person in the classified service shall take an active part in any campaign for the election of officers of the city, except to vote and privately state a personal opinion."
There is another section of the charter that says the same for sworn members of the Fire Department. Pauling maintains that police officers would be covered in these sections as well.
The charter also states that no political contributions may be solicited from or by employees.
City employee personnel policies and procedures also prohibit employees from visually or orally identifying themselves as employees in an attempt to influence or interfere with an election.
The executive order also maintains that, because some city employees are paid in whole or in part with federal grant funds, the Hatch Act, which prohibits political activity by federal employees, would apply.
Former Mayor Kathy Taylor's administration, with legal guidance from then-City Attorney Deirdre Dexter, took a different stance on the issue.
During the 2009 city elections, employees, particularly firefighters, were actively involved in campaigns, going door-to-door trying to get some city councilors ousted.
Targeted councilors accused the firefighters' union at the time of "thuggery" and "intimidation" in its tactics, and called for Dexter to defend the City Charter.
In response, Dexter said the city takes its cues from state law, which allows such activity under the First Amendment protections of free political speech, and that employees could participate in campaigns as long as they were off duty and not in uniform.
But Pauling maintains that charter provisions relating to local concerns prevail over state statutes.
Three city attorney opinions on the issue from 1984, 1990 and 1991 also take that position, and one of them says employees who violate the charter can be disciplined.
"We believe the position by the previous administration was wrong and in some cases illegal, and this is right," Simonson said.
Complaints were filed with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel's Hatch Act Unit regarding firefighters' participation in the 2009 election cycle.
The unit's attorney, Justin Martell, wrote Fire Chief Allen LaCroix just last week that evidence presented did not support allegations that firefighters violated the Hatch Act, but no determination was made as to whether any particular employee of the Fire Department is covered by the act.
But Martell's letter does state that "a Hatch Act employee is permitted to campaign in connection with a partisan election while acting in his or her personal capacity."
It also notes that campaigning as a member of a union with no reference to one's official position "constitutes campaigning in one's individual capacity."
Union representatives said they may end up having to deal with the mayor's executive order in court.
"City of Tulsa employees know better than anyone what goes on in the city - the mismanagement, the wasted money and so on," Rider said. "This is being done to weaken their voice."
Brian Barber 581-8322