By ALICIA LEONARD
The TCpalm.com, the online version of Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers, based in Stuart Florida, reported in January 2008 that Walton County was where it all began. What you might ask? The reintroduction of the 1939 obscure law know as the Hatch Act. The Hatch Act law, as enacted, was designed to be used against corruption in the political process, but can be a political tool, too.
TCpalm stated, “Records show the controversy started in Walton County, where Bill Imfeld, the county’s finance director,was running for sheriff until he got an opinion November 20 from Ana Galindo-Marrone, head of the Hatch Act Unit with the Office of Special Council (OSC). Galindo-Marrone determined part of Imfelds’s job was based on federal grants. As such, he couldn’t run for a partisan office, she told him, giving him the choice of resigning his job or withdrawing from the race. Imfeld withdrew from the race.”
A complaint against Walton County Sheriff Ralph Johnson questioning using the sheriff’s funds to pay an attorney to write a letter to Imfeld, advising him to seek an audience with the OSC over his eligibility to run, was later filed by another citizen. Regarding the complaint, Johnson told the Herald, “They have finished the investigation and we are awaiting to hear their ruling.”
The can of worms opened by the Walton County Sheriff’s race has now spread across Florida as more and more candidates have felt the sting of the Hatch Act. Under-sheriffs and deputies in Collier, Sarasota and Charlotte counties have been pulled into the fray, with many resigning or accepting demotions to be able to run in their sheriff’s races, as well.
OSC spokesman Jim Mitchell said they have plenty to keep them busy this time of year, “We’ve got about 3,000 cases nationwide and many are based in Florida. Many are request by candidates asking if they might be in possible violation and they want to know before they become vested in a campaign. It’s the smart thing to do and will probably save them a lot of problems in the future to find out now.”
Some complaints are just unfounded as Mitchell described one of the more memorable he’s received, “We had one sheriff’s candidate who tried to file a complaint against a deputy for removing his political signs from the right-of way. We couldn’t help him there,” he chuckles.
Others have faced more serious consequences. “The NASA employee that’s been in the news recently did the right thing by taking a plea. It could have been much worse for him,” recalled Mitchell of a NASA employees who was recently suspended for using his government e-mail accounts to send partisan political emails and posts to a blog while on duty in his federal workplace.
Part of a press release by the OSC referring to the case states: “There was a time when the Hatch Act was about wearing campaign buttons in the office, or engaging in political activity while on duty, wearing an official uniform, or in a government vehicle,” said Special Counsel Scott Bloch. “Today, modern office technology multiplies the opportunities for employees to abuse their positions and, as in this serious case, to be penalized, even removed from their job, with just a few clicks of a mouse.”
Mitchell did point out that the Hatch Act has become something that has garnered the attention of Congress, but not enough to move on it. “There’s been a bill in Congress since December that would exempt counties or communities with less than 100,000 people from dealing with the (Hatch) Act at a local level.” Another idea springing forth at local levels is the thought of making all races non-partisan. Mitchell said that would work but has to be dealt with by the state and counties involved since the Hatch Act only applies to partisan elections at the state and local levels.
Charles Finkel, general counsel for the Florida Elections Commission, said they get busiest after the elections are over. “That’s when people start looking at candidates’ finance records, after the election. We get more complaints after the polls are closed by those questioning if the campaign was legal. We get most of ours in the spring, so that’s our busy season.”
Questions concerning residency is another factor in local races. In the Walton Sheriff’s race, Tony Cornman has taken some heat for being a resident of Bay County while qualifying for the Walton race.
Walton Supervisor of Election’s Bobby Beasley pointed out the rules that apply to residency. “School board candidates have to live in the district they are running in when they qualify. Constitutional officers have to reside in the county when they take office, which is the first tuesday after the first Monday in January 2009. They do not have to live in Walton to qualify, but they do have to live here at the time they assume office.”
Cornman says he hope that voters will vote on issues and not his residency. “My wife and I were both born and raised in Walton County. My home is up for sale in Bay County right now and we are hoping to sell and relocate. We are dealing with a slow market, but we feel our future is here in Walton. I believe people will educate themselves about the candidates and issues and my current residency will have no real impact on my campaign.”