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Should government employees be allowed to serve as elected officials?

By Scott Tibbs, January 03, 2009

Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels is proposing limiting the ability of city and county government employees to serve as elected officials, citing a conflict of interest when those employees control the salaries for their own positions. While the governor's aggressive agenda for change has been impressive and he does have a point here, I do not agree with this specific proposal.

The two examples that pop to the front of my mind of local government employees who served as elected officials recently are Mike Diekhoff, the current chief of police who served as a police officer while on the Bloomington City Council, and Warren Henegar, a part-time employee of the county Health Department who was elected to the Monroe County Council in 2004. While I did not often agree with either man on public policy, I do not believe that being an employee of local government hampered their effectiveness in their respective positions.

Governor Daniels is right that there is a conflict of interest when people vote on their own salaries, and I would support legislation to require local government employees to abstain from voting on matters that directly affect their jobs. (Diekhoff has voluntarily abstained from voting on salaries for the Police Department in the past.) Any such legislation will have to be carefully written and spell out very clearly what city and county employees may vote on and what votes they must abstain from to avoid any confusion. Some of these (like salary ordinances) are obvious, but other votes may not be as obvious.

I do not think that the statement in the Indianapolis Star that the state legislature "is rife with conflicts of interest" because several legislators are school district employees is a fair one. Voting on funding from the state does not directly affect teacher salaries because those are determined by local school boards. The criticism by Greenfield Mayor Brad DeReamer that police officers should be sharing knowledge whether or not they serve on the city council misses the point that a city councilor is going to have much more access to persuade and inform other city councilors than he would if he were not elected.

Obviously, there can be serious ethical concerns, such as when a Hammond City Councilor introduced an amendment "that gave him and four other foremen $5,000-a-year raise." Some reform is clearly needed here to prevent egregious abuses of the public trust. What the legislature should not do, however, is move too far with these reforms. Common-sense reforms can and should be made without completely banning local government employees from bringing their expertise to the table as an elected official.