Costa Mesa employees question election guidelines

The head of a Costa Mesa employee group is questioning a management memo to workers outlining which political activities are prohibited at City Hall.

Costa Mesa City Employees Assn. President Helen Nenadal said in a letter to city CEO Tom Gatch that she agrees with many of the broad principles in his directive, as some political activity is illegal on the public’s time, but questioned the timining and motivation of the orders.

“Although some of the memo is legally accurate, it overstates the law in other areas and provides conflicting guidance regarding employee break time,” Nenadal wrote. “CMCEA agrees with much of the general thrust of your memo. At the same time, some of the content raises distinct concerns....”

Many employees have been given pink slips and, she wrote, "... we are not inclined to trust the city’s motivation, nor its willingness to act fairly and without prejudice toward our members.”

In a Saturday memo to employees, Hatch explained that a good deal of political activity on city time, or using city resources, was prohibited. Using the public’s resources for political advocacy is illegal in many instances.

Hatch explained that employees should not use the city’s wireless networks to send messages advocating or opposing a ballot measure or candidates, speak with other employees about political issues at work, or post links to candidates from the city’s website.

Other prohibited activity included using city equipment for political reasons; making public or press appearances during work time, city meetings or break times; posting campaign literature in work stations, employee or city bulletin boards; or making campaign-related phone calls on break time or during work hours.

In the memo, Hatch said employees were free to make campaign contributions and support or oppose a ballot measure, so long as no public resources were used.

Three City Council seats and a proposed city charter are on the November ballot.

Working on a political campaign is permitted by the city if it is done during unpaid lunch breaks, according to the memo.

Hatch asked that employees sign and date the memo by Sept. 17, acknowledging its terms and conditions.

Nenadal suggested to employees that they only acknowledge receipt of Hatch’s letter but not agree to its terms until further review. Nenadal, in her response, called the management’s request “unreasonable.”

Repercussions for not signing the memo, or signing it in the manner Nenadal suggested, would be handled as an “internal matter,” according to city spokesman Bill Lobdell.

The memo sent by Hatch was overly broad in its scope, said Newport-Mesa Unified school board Trustee Katrina Foley.

Foley, an employment lawyer, argued that the memo as written could be interpreted to prohibit an employee’s freedom of speech at a City Council meeting.

“The majority of the terms and conditions will not pass constitutional muster,” said Foley, a former councilwoman.

She also asserted that parts of the memo are “outright illegal” and fly in the face of 1st Amendment and employee legal protections.

Lobdell said the memo isn’t unusual and follows a custom established under former City Manager Allan Roeder, who sent a similar letter to employees during election seasons in order to prevent public resources from being used for political activities.

“CEO Hatch’s memo followed in that tradition — a preventative action to avoid violations of state law during what promises to be a closely watched city election,” he said.

Nenadal said through Orange County Employees Assn. spokeswoman Jennifer Muir that in her 30 years with the city, she’s never received a similar memo.

Twitter: @lawilliams30