Who can be top cop?
Across the state, across the nation, cops are hoping to be the one elected as top cop in their community. They are campaigning, raising money and making promises with the hope of improving their working status. They want to be elected sheriff so they are banging the political drum in the hope of hitting the right note with the voters.
The problem is, most of them do not qualify for the job. Not because they are inexperienced in law enforcement but because the law says they are ineligible to run. In fact, there are rules that are meant to prevent them from running. (See story on page 4 of this issue.)
In 1939, a federal law was enacted intent on stopping partisan politics infiltrating the ranks of a county's police force. In 1940 and again in 1993 the act was amended and expanded to include state and local employees and attempted to protect other areas of public service as well. It seems, our boys at the capitol were worried that political favoritism and corruption, the same scourge infesting Washington now, would infect local sheriff's departments to the detriment of an impartial legal system, so they enacted the Hatch Act to isolate the professional side of law enforcement from party politics. The Sheriff being elected and promoted by a party, was head of a professional force. Just like other government agencies would be protected.
The Hatch Act is like so many laws enacted by congress, a well meaning idea but difficult to manage at the local level. Not to be deterred by technicalities the new federal restraints used federal funds and grants as teeth to ensure compliance. If you disobey the rules, you lose federal funding instead of being accountable to the courts.
Okay, you may think the result would be cut-and-dried. You would be wrong. The Hatch Act seems to be largely ignored at the local level. Don't ask, don't tell, appears to govern. Unless you want to prevent a particular candidate from running, as was the case with Bradley County's current Sheriff Tim Gobble, the Hatch Act can be ignored, but as in Gobble's case, it can be used as a very effective tool to help persuade an overzealous public employee from stepping out of line. If you want to run, you must resign your government job first. Gobble did resign his job as head of the local Emergency Management Agency to run against politically accommodating and status-quo supportive Dan Gilley. And he did beat Gilley to be elected sheriff, but few men would risk their career to be as courageous.
Preventing good and experienced candidates from running for a political office such as sheriff, even to protect the purity of government may not be the best solution, but the Hatch Act is presently the law until it is replaced with something better.
It is unclear who is responsible for enforcing the Hatch Act. In the case of Bradley County Sheriff's deputies running for a partisan political office within the same department that receives federal funding, may require action by current Sheriff Tim Gobble. But it is doubtful he would want to fire them and it seems unlikely federal funds will be cut off. Alternatively, the Bradley County Election Commission may have been derelict in its duty to vet qualified candidates. The Tennessee State Election Commission could be at fault as violation of the Hatch Act seems to be statewide. It could be that the Federal Election Commission is not providing enough oversight to the states. Despite inaction by the oversight agencies responsible, the fact remains that candidates are on the ballot that maybe should not be there, or at least, should prove eligibility.
Will the Bradley County Sheriff's Office jeopardize losing all federal funding if one of its deputies is elected Sheriff? Could he legally hold that office? Could his leadership be challenged in court? The answers to these questions, and many more are awaiting clarification.
One thing is for sure, the Hatch Act is a can of worms just waiting to be spilled.
That's what I think. What do you think?