PHOENIX — A Pinal County state lawmaker wants to know whether Pima County employees have a First Amendment right to financially aid candidates for county office.
Sen. Vince Leach, R-Saddlebrooke, said he’s gotten inquiries from some individuals who question whether the fact that they’re paid by the county means they’re effectively silenced from using their dollars to elect those running for the Board of Supervisors, sheriff, assessor, recorder or any other county position.
Leach represents Legislative District 11, which includes both Pinal and Pima counties, including Arizona City and Maricopa.
Leach said he personally believes — and says courts have decided — that money is the equivalent of speech which is constitutionally protected. But he conceded he’s not clear how far that goes — and whether the county can force its workers give up some of their rights.
“I have my opinion,’’ he said.
So does Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry. He said there’s a good reason for the rules which have been on the books for decades.
“It’s really to keep folks who are running for local office, who could be the supervisor of a particular employee, from putting pressure on that employee to make a contribution,’’ Huckelberry said. “It’s been in place as long as we’ve had a merit system.’’
That system, he said, is based on the idea that hiring and promotion practices all based on merit, “not on political favoritism.’’
Put more simply, he said, having a system that opens the door for personnel practices to be affected by political contributions “is not dissimilar to similar political patronage.’’
Huckelberry acknowledged that the ban applies not just to people trying to affect the outcome of the race to head the agency where they are employed.
So, for example, someone working in the Transportation Department, which is headed by an appointed director, could not put money into the race for county attorney. But he said the broad ban is justified.
“In our system, employees are mobile,’’ Huckelberry said. “And there’s no prohibition from an employee competing for and receiving a promotion to where that person could basically be promoted into a department with an elected official.’’
Huckelberry said the Board of Supervisors itself reviewed the policy within the past two months and decided to keep it in placer.
“The concept is, it’s just a good management practice,’’ he said.
He pointed out there is a similar ban in the Hatch Act which governs what political activities are and are not allowed by federal employees.
That, however, is not the case at the state level, where personnel rules specifically allow not only donations to candidates but also permit employees to circulate nominating and recall petitions.
Huckelberry acknowledged that the county rules are so broad that they even bar workers from contributing to the candidates for supervisor, people who have no direct authority over hiring and firing line employees but who set the broader policies for how the county is run.
“But you also have the potential of putting undue pressure on employees to make political contributions for purposes of political patronage,’’ he said. “And I think that outweighs the former.’’
Leach, for his part, said too much is being made about the link between political donations and favors — and not just in employment.
“Any form of donations will always be attacked as whatever you want to attack it on, whether it be you can’t be a (sheriff’s) deputy or does it give you access or will you run a bill because I gave XYZ money,’’ he said.
A spokesman for Brnovich said he cannot say when a formal opinion might be issued.