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Maine Supreme Court: City Employees Can Run For School Board

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By Aditi Mukherji, JD on September 16, 2013 3:55 PM

In a case that wrestles with an individuals' free speech rights balanced against a government's obligation to be transparent, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the city of South Portland could not prevent two city employees from running for the school board.

In a 5-1 decision, the court said the rights of the employees outweigh the city's interest in preventing hypothetical conflicts of interest. However, because the court felt the government's concerns were legitimate, the force of the decision is actually quite limited.

Ethics Concerns

Justices on Tuesday upheld a lower court ruling in favor of Karen Callaghan and Burt Edwards, city employees who were told they couldn't run for the school board after South Portland amended its personnel policy in 2010 to ban employees from running for city elective offices.

But the court also determined that the city's personnel policy was drafted with legitimate concerns about public positions and property being used for private political gain.

Because of the government's ethics concerns, the court upheld the lower court ruling in favor of the specific employees, but overturned the portion of the decision invalidating the city policy moving forward, reports Bangor Daily News.

Justice Donald Alexander wasn't content with the decision. In a dissenting opinion, he said that serious conflicts of interest would be created if municipal employees are allowed to run for the school board.

Limited Impact of Decision

The court's decision stops short of setting a sweeping precedent in the state that could have struck down all government policies against employees engaging in political activities.

Going forward, the court's decision will be applied on a case-by-case basis. In this specific case of South Portland employees Karen Callaghan and Burton Edwards, the city could not prevent them from seeking school board seats. Implementing a policy that prohibited them from engaging in political activities on their own time violated their constitutional rights.

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