Costa Mesa CEO clarifies political activities memo

Costa Mesa city CEO Tom Hatch has sent city employees an email clarifying an earlier memo that prohibited them from engaging in political activity at work.

It is generally illegal for municipal employees to partake in political causes at work, but some workers were confused as to whether they could speak out at City Council meetings.

In the email, Hatch said city employees may attend council meetings, but not while in uniform or while on duty.

In doing so, he clarified a memo sent Sept. 8 where he said employees were prohibited from making public statements in favor of or against a candidate or ballot measure during official city meetings. That statement was aimed at on-duty staff meetings and the like.

Costa Mesa City Employees Assn. President Helen Nenadal replied to the original memo in a letter dated Sept. 11, saying that while the association agreed with general message of the memo, she felt the law was overstated in some parts and that city employees weren't inclined to trust the city in the current political climate.

In the email sent Friday, Hatch said he did not apologize for the sending the initial guidelines, but was sorry if anyone on staff was confused by the message.

"The upcoming election will likely be very difficult and our role, while on duty, is to professionally and fairly facilitate the process and not be engaged in the process," Hatch wrote. "Everyone will be watching what employees are doing, but even if they weren't, the right thing to do is to follow the law and not put our professional credibility at risk."

A leading constitutional scholar said the city's actions were legal.

An employer can prohibit political activity by employees, irrespective of whether they are on or off duty, according to UC Irvine School of Law founding Dean Erwin Chemerinsky, who specializes in civil rights and constitutional law.

"In fact, the government even may prohibit all political activities by its employees, even off work, as does the federal Hatch Act, for civil service employees," Chemerinsky said. "The Supreme Court has upheld this and rejected 1st Amendment challenges."

City spokesman Bill Lobdell said the city would handle as an "internal matter" the employees who did not sign the initial memo and return it by last Friday, or those who signed it as Nenadal suggested, with "receipt only acknowledged" in addition to their signature.

On Monday, it was unclear how many employees signed the memo or signed it as Nenadal suggested, as paperwork came in from various departments, Lobdell said.

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