PORTLAND – The tension between the First Amendment rights of municipal employees and a city’s interest in fair and effective government operations was the focus Wednesday as the Maine Supreme Judicial Court considered a South Portland personnel policy that bars city workers from running for the local Board of Education.
The policy was challenged by Karen Callaghan and Burton Edwards, who were School Board members and part-time employees – a circulation librarian and a Parks and Recreation Department clerk, respectively – when South Portland expanded its prohibition on candidacy for elected office to include the School Board.
A judge ruled in favor of Callaghan and Edwards earlier this year and the city appealed to the state Supreme Judicial Court.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine Foundation filed a friend-of-the-court brief arguing against the personnel policy.
The policy also prohibits municipal employees from engaging in political activity related to School Board and City Council elections.
During oral arguments before the court, South Portland Corporation Counsel Sally Daggett said municipal government has an interest in providing effective government, removing pressure on employees’ political decisions and preventing employees from having divided loyalties between the municipal and school sides of local government.
“It is important to remember here that the school department is a branch of the city — not a separate entity — and city employees occupy trusted positions in the community and, as a practical matter, they cannot be separated from their city jobs merely because they are off duty,” Daggett told the justices.
David Lourie, the lawyer representing Callaghan and Edwards, said the changes South Portland made to the personnel policy in 2010 were unprecedented.
“The plaintiffs recognize, as public employees, their conduct, including out of the workplace, is subject to some reasonable regulation. It’s submitted that this regulation is not reasonable,” Lourie said.
The justices’ questions did not clearly indicate which attorney they felt had the stronger arguments.
They pressed Daggett on whether the city’s policy was overly broad if it swept up someone like Callaghan and on what harm could result.
“The worst example you can give is the librarian is talking politics in the library while checking out books,” Justice Andrew Mead said.
They challenged Lourie about where the city should have drawn the line if some employees should be allowed to run for School Board and others not. Lourie agreed that the city manager, for example, should not be allowed to run for School Board.
“Where’s the line?” Justice Donald Alexander demanded.
“Is it at supervisory?” Justice Ellen Gorman asked nearly at the same time.
The justices did not indicate when they would issue their ruling.
Callaghan, who attended the oral arguments, said after the proceeding that although she no longer works for the city, she still wants to see the policy defeated.
“I’m standing up for the rights of other people. They can’t even work on a campaign. I’m active, I’m political, I don’t want to be told I can’t work on someone’s campaign,” she said.
Callaghan said she felt she was being targeted by the policy because of her union activities at the library.
City Manager James Gailey said her allegation was false and unfair to the employee committee who worked on the amended personnel policy.
“We have numerous unions within the city and at no time do we target individuals because of their association with their specific union,” he wrote in an email message.
Daggett said she had never heard that allegation before.
“It’s not in the record (of the case) and it’s not part of the case,” she said.
Edwards continues to work for the city. An 18-year member of the School Board, he opted not to seek re-election after the policy was adopted.
Staff Writer Ann S. Kim can be contacted at 791-6383 or at: