Will Hatch Act impact election of Unicoi Co. sheriff?

Brad Hicks • Mar 12, 2012 at 9:45 AM

ERWIN — A successor to fill the unexpired term of former Unicoi County Sheriff Kent Harris will be decided in the August general election, and employees of the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department and Erwin Police Department could toss their hats in the ring to seek the position.

However, federal and local regulations could impact the decisions of potential candidates working for either of these entities.

The 1939 Hatch Act is a federal law that essentially prohibits employees of agencies or governmental bodies receiving federal funding from seeking office in a partisan race. Violations of the act could potentially disqualify agencies receiving federal funding from receiving future monies.

The Hatch Act impacted local elections in 2010, when three UCSD employees resigned their positions to seek elected office. The law also led to shakeups on the Unicoi County Commission, as several UCSD employees serving on the panel withdrew petitions to run for elected office and remain employed with the UCSD.

Unicoi County is without a sheriff following Harris’ March 1 resignation. In his resignation letter, Harris citied ongoing health problems as the reason for his resignation. At a special called meeting Friday, the County Commission accepted the resignation letter and discussed how it will go about appointing someone to fill the role of sheriff until the August general election.

The county will accept resumes from qualified applicants through March 22, and the commission intends to make the appointment at its March 26 meeting.

The candidate who is elected as sheriff in August will fill the remainder of Harris’ term, which expires in 2014.

Unicoi County Administrator of Elections Sarah Bailey said the Hatch Act may or may not come into play in this year’s sheriff’s race.

Bailey said because the vacancy will be decided in the general election, those seeking the office will have to take out a petition as an independent candidate because there will not be a party primary election.

As long as the candidates remain listed as independents and the race is non-partisan, the Hatch Act would not come into play, Bailey said.

However, Bailey said local Democratic and Republican parties do have the option of holding caucuses to select their nominees for the office. If this is done, the parties would have to notify the Unicoi County Elections Commission by the April 5 qualifying deadline that they have selected someone to be their party’s nominee.

“If that were to happen, the race would become partisan at that point and the Hatch Act would apply,” Bailey said.

While the Hatch Act may not come into play in the race for sheriff should UCSD employees seek the office, a local regulation would.

Under Unicoi County Civil Service Board rules, a current UCSD employee would be unable to seek the office in the general election without either resigning from their job or requesting an unpaid leave of absence.

Walter Garland, Unicoi County Civil Service Board chairman, said the board formed this regulation several years ago to prevent multiple UCSD employees from seeking the office of sheriff or other political offices.

“We decided the best thing, if they wanted to run for sheriff and they were employed by the sheriff’s department, they either had to resign or ask for a leave of absence to keep everybody in the sheriff’s department from getting involved in politics,” Garland said.

Garland said the Civil Service Board has the authority to establish rules and regulations for UCSD employees. Unlike the Hatch Act, the board’s regulation would not apply to employees of the Erwin Police Department should any choose run for sheriff. But, like the Hatch Act, the board’s regulation would not apply to whomever the County Commission appoints to serve as acting sheriff.

Garland said he is not yet sure if the acting sheriff would be the one to make the decision regarding another UCSD employee’s request for a leave of absence to pursue the office. He said this matter may need to be addressed by the board in the future.

“We’ve never run into this situation before,” Garland said.

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