City workers lose challenge to law, must quit to take office

Five Lake County civil servants lost their lawsuit challenging a state law that forbids them from serving in elected office in the same city that employs them.

An Indiana law barring municipal employees from serving in office in the same unit of government passed in 2012 has an effective date of Jan. 1, 2016. This was to provide current officeholders an opportunity to decide whether to run for re-election.

Matthew Claussen, Juda Parks, Susan Pelfrey, Michael Opinker and Scott Rakos sued the state in the U.S. Court for the Northern District of Indiana, Hammond Division. They are city employees who were elected or re-elected to their various city councils and challenged the law as a violation of their federal constitutional rights under the First and 14th amendments and under the Contracts Clause and Takings Clause.

Northern District Chief Judge Philip P. Simon rejected those claims Wednesday and dismissed the federal complaint but said the plaintiffs could pursue state law claims in state court.

“Passage of the statute did not result in plaintiffs’ resignation, and the statute does not compel plaintiffs to assume public office and thereby resign their employment,” Simon wrote. “The plaintiffs alone will decide whether they want to assume public office and forego continued government employment.

“They simply have not been shouldered with a financial burden that the public at large should bear; there is no taking at all here, unconstitutional or otherwise.”

The ruling upheld Indiana Code 3-5-9-5 that states a person “is considered to have resigned as a government employee when the individual assumes an elected office of the unit that employs the individual.”

Simon reasoned that Indiana had an interest in disparate treatment of municipal employees: preventing the appearance of corruption. “The simple fact of the matter is that there is obviously a greater risk of self-dealing when a municipal worker holds office in the same government unit that employs him, and the questioned law attempts to address that problem.”

In all cases, the civil servant salaries are greater than those the employees would earn as city council members. Claussen is a Hobart police officer elected to city council; Pelfrey is a New Chicago water department worker who won a council seat; Opinker and Rakos are Hammond firefighters elected to Hammond City Council; and Parks is an East Chicago police officer elected to city council. Rakos has resigned from the Hammond Fire Department, the opinion notes.

Attorney General Greg Zoeller praised the ruling in a statement Thursday. “We respect the plaintiffs’ service in their municipal governments; but the Legislature has firmly drawn the line at serving in no more than one position in a municipality at a time, and the Court has upheld that statute. Serving in municipal government is a privilege and should not be primarily about the financial reward; and there are many ways that civic-minded people can serve their communities and neighbors in non-government capacities,” he said.

The case is Claussen et al. v. Pence et al., 2:15-cv-52.


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