Should uniformed officers be allowed to appear in political ads?

Jacksonville Ethics Commission says no, but city's general counsel gives OK

By Jim Piggott - Reporter

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Uniformed police officers and marked patrol cars should not be used in political ads, according to Jacksonville's Ethics Commission, which fired off a strongly worded letter to the sheriff Friday.

Sheriff Mike Williams gave some of his officers permission to appear in several political ads supporting Mayor Lenny Curry, some City Council candidates and himself, citing guidance from the city's general counsel on whether it was allowable under city rules.

The city’s top lawyer interprets the ethics rules to be that off-duty uniformed officers are allowed to participate in political ads. In a legal memo on the issue, General Counsel Jason Gabriel cited several ordinances, the collective bargaining agreement with the city and the First Amendment in his defense of the officers and city equipment being used in the ads.

RELATED: Curry political ad violates ethics standards, complaint claims

But citing an update to Jacksonville's Code of Ordinances focused on the “misuse of resources for campaigning,” the head of Jacksonville's Ethics Commission sees things differently.

 

The Ethics Commission held a closed-door “shade” meeting on Friday to decide what should be done about the ads but because of the general counsel's ruling, the commission has no real sway in the matter.

A Jacksonville Sheriff's Office spokeswoman said the sheriff only has to follow what the general counsel says and does not have to factor in the Ethics Commission's take on the issue.

READ: General counsel's legal memo | Ethics Commission's letter to sheriff

But the commission sent a sharply critical letter to Williams, saying changes should be made because whether the ads toe the line on the letter of the law or not, they cross the line on the spirit of the law.

“We are bound by the general counsel’s opinion, like it or not, so we are forced to follow it,” Ethics Commission Chair Joe Rogan said. “I think the use of police officers in this manner violates the city’s ethics code.”

A recording of the closed-door meeting has been released, and some board members can be heard questioning whether it's fair to have uniformed officers appearing in political ads when other officers might feel differently about supporting that candidate.

The commission's letter acknowledges that the general counsel's opinion is binding, but points to rules for military and other law enforcement agencies as examples to follow.

“Using city resources and uniformed city employees in campaign commercials erodes the public trust in government in Jacksonville,” the commission wrote. “We all should encourage voting and civic involvement by all our citizens (including, of course, our law enforcement), but we should not permit the use of the taxpayers’ property for political campaigning.”

The commissioners asked the sheriff to work with them on proposing new policies that would be “in keeping with national best practices” and stop the use of city "resources, property and uniformed personnel for political purposes."

News4Jax contacted the sheriff and the mayor's campaign manager for comment on the Ethics Commission's opinion of the ads, but we have not heard back.

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