Case asks whether school board members can run for political office

A Lake Superior judge may not be breaking any new legal ground with an election-related ruling this week, but he’s set the stage for an appeal that could clear up confusion about whether nonpartisan school board members must give up their right to run for a public office that requires the candidate to declare their political party affiliation.

The ruling by Lake Superior Judge Jesse Villalpando came in George T. Janiec v. Lake County Board of Election and Registration, No. 45D12-1103-MI-00014. Hammond school board member George Janiec wants to run as a Republican against incumbent Democratic city mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. in the May 3 primary. The Democratic Party members of the Lake County Elections Board agreed to remove Janiec from the ballot on grounds that state statute prevents local school board members from political campaigning. If Janiec wants to run for mayor, he must first resign from the school board.

Janiec appealed to the trial court. Judge Villalpando on Wednesday ruled against him and found that he should essentially remove himself from the ballot. At issue is whether Janiec breached an implied statutory duty outlined in Indiana Code Section 20-25-3-3(c)(4) that he wouldn’t be influenced by any political considerations once he took the school board seat July 1, 2010, but did just that when declaring his candidacy for the partisan municipal mayor seat in February.

In his ruling, the judge wrote, “The court finds as a matter of law that the Election Board acted consistent with legislative authority pursuant to: I.C. 20-25-3-3(c)(4), contrary to the legal authority cited in either Petitioner’s or Respondent’s legal memoranda. I.C. 20-25-3-3 specifically applies to the question of conduct to which eligible school board members must adhere. This statute is unambiguous and spot on as it applies to the operative facts of this case.”

Judge Villalpando wrote this isn’t a case of first impression as the election board attorney James Weiser argued, and that the petitioner’s attorneys Cordell Funk and William Fine are also incorrect in saying the election board created a new standard in denying Janiec’s candidacy.

In his 10-page ruling, the judge cited a code of ethics adopted by the School City of Hammond and the Indiana School Board Association that states board members should refuse to "'play politics in either the traditional, partisan or in any petty sense." The Indiana Supreme Court dictated the limited judicial review applicable in this case in its ruling, LTV Steel v Griffin, and using that case, Judge Villalpando ruled that Janiec alone created the condition that undermined his candidacy for mayor according to any straightforward examination of I.C. 20-25-3-3(c)(4). As a result, the Election Board did not abuse its discretion in its March 7th ruling barring Janiec’s candidacy.

The holding is limited to the specific operative facts stated in Janiec’s case and is not intended to establish new policies pertaining to school board members’ constitutionally protected political activities, other than filing a declaration of candidacy for partisan municipal office while holding a nonpartisan office.

But whether the judge intends for this to be a broad stroke or not, history shows that others have done what Janiec is being barred from doing now.

Four decades ago, Hammond school board member Ralph Potesta used his position to win election as a Republican to the Indiana Senate, and currently two other Lake County school board members remain on the May 3 primary ballot for city council seats despite their current positions. Gary School Board trustee LaBrenda King-Smith faced a challenge in her running for city council but that failed on technical grounds. Lake Station School Board member Michael Stills is running for an at-large City Council seat and has been unchallenged.

A notice of appeal in Janiec’s case was filed following a hearing on Thursday, but nothing yet appears on the appellate docket. This issue is on a truncated time table because early voting begins on Monday.

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