September 10, 2013

Supreme court says S. Portland board members can stay

By Matt Byrne mbyrne@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

The Maine Supreme Judicial Court ruled Tuesday that a policy barring two South Portland public employees from running for seats on the school board was unconstitutional and violated their First Amendment rights.

The court's narrow ruling applied only to the two employees and did not strike down the entire personnel policy.

Karen Callaghan and Burton Edwards sued the city over the personnel policy, which would require them to quit their municipal posts before running for seats on the school board.

Callaghan worked as a circulation librarian and Edwards as a part-time employee for the Parks and Recreation Department.

In 2010, the policy, which previously barred city employees from running for the City Council, was expanded to include the school board as well.

Callaghan and Edwards were serving on the school board when the policy was changed. They sued the city in 2011, seeking court approval so they could again seek office. Since then, Edwards decided not to run, but Callaghan continues to serve. She was allowed to run for re-election in 2011 as a one-time exception to the city's personnel policy.

Tuesday's decision should lift any remaining encumbrances to Callaghan's seeking another three-year term.

The ruling upholds a 2012 decision by Superior Court Justice Thomas Warren in favor of Callaghan and Edwards.

Chief Justice Leigh Saufley did not participate in the 5-1 decision and Justice Donald Alexander was the lone dissenter. He said serious conflicts of interest would be created if municipal employees are allowed to run for the school board.

In a statement, Zachary Heiden, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, applauded the ruling as an affirmation of free speech.

"People do not give up their fundamental constitutional rights when they take a government job," Heiden said. "The Law Court has made it clear that government restrictions on fundamental rights must be designed to address real -- not hypothetical -- problems."

Because the decision deals with an issue of constitutional law, the case may be appealed directly to the U.S. Supreme Court, although South Portland City Manager Jim Gailey said no decision has been made on whether to do so.

-- The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Matt Byrne can be contacted at 791-6303 or at:

mbyrne@pressherald.com

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