By Tia Lyons
Though the official announcement is still days away, the El Dorado Civil Service Commission has vetted the legality of an El Dorado police officer seeking the city’s highest office in 2018.
Sgt. Christopher Lutman, community relations supervisor for the El Dorado Police Department, confirmed that he will run for mayor of El Dorado next year and that he plans to officially announce his candidacy Thursday during the El Dorado Christmas Parade.
Lutman said those plans were already in the works when the civil service commission convened last week for a special called meeting to determine if he could seek political office, particularly the office of El Dorado mayor, while employed as an officer with the EPD.
After some discussion and legal counsel from City Attorney Henry Kinslow, civil service commissioners learned that the action is legally permissible.
State and federal laws
A teaser video that Lutman recently posted on Facebook prompted a concerned citizen to contact Toddy Pitard, chairman of the civil service commission.
“I got a call, and they wanted to know if he could do that, if it was within our rules and regulations, and one of our rules stated that that couldn’t take place,” Pitard said.
The rule is part of a set of ECSC rules and regulations that have not been updated in more than 10 years — a matter which Pitard has called upon the commission to address.
“We have a lot of new commissioners, including myself. We didn’t want him to get set up to do this and then find out that he couldn’t,” Pitard said.
Kinslow researched state statutes and Arkansas attorney general legal opinions pertaining to the participation in political activities for city employees and presented his findings to the civil service commission during the specially called meeting on Nov. 28.
The existing civil service rule states that police officers and firefighters “shall not be connected with any campaign or political management except to cast a vote and express personal opinions privately.”
The rule, Section 12, also prohibits employees in either the police or fire department from engaging in politics on an individual basis.
However, Kinslow pointed to state statutes and legal opinions rendered in 2003 and 2014 by former attorneys general Mike Beebe and Dustin McDaniel, respectively, that allow officers and firefighters to seek public office.
Kinslow said a state statute passed in 1987 allowed civil service commissions to promulgate rules and regulations to govern the political activities of fire and police department personnel.
An Arkansas statute that was passed 10 years later, 21-2-207, applied to public employees in general.
The law states that “no employee of the state, a county, a municipality or any other political subdivision of (Arkansas) shall be deprived of his or her right to run as a candidate for an elective office or to express his or her opinion as a citizen on political subjects, unless as necessary to meet the requirements of federal law as it pertains to employees.”
The federal Hatch Act prohibits employees in the executive branch of the federal government — except vice-president and certain designated high-level officials — from engaging in some forms of political activity.
The act also applies to local and state government employees whose positions are funded fully or partially by federal funds.
In 2014, McDaniel, responded to an inquiry about whether an employee of a first-class city, particularly a police officer, must take a leave of absence from his employment with the city to run for citywide elective office, such as mayor.
McDaniel pointed to Arkansas code 21-2-207, saying that a local policy that is purported to prohibit the candidacy of employees for elective office would be contrary to the state statute, and therefore, unenforceable.
Beebe wrote a similar opinion in 1998, writing “rules and regulations of the civil service commission regarding the political activities of fire department personnel must be considered to the extent they do not conflict with state or federal law.”
Former school board member
Police Chief Billy White said the police department follows state statute 14-52-109, which prohibits law enforcement officers from engaging in political activities while on duty.
“When Sgt. Lutman first presented the idea of running for political office, we revised the department’s policies and regulations to make sure he was aware of limitations as an officer running for that position,” White said.
“He can’t have bumper stickers on his (city-issued police) vehicle. He can’t wear any political insignia on his uniform,” White continued. “If someone comes up to him while in uniform and says, ‘Hey, I heard you’re running for mayor,’ his response is, ‘I can’t talk about that while I’m on duty.’ Commonsense stuff.”
Lutman previously held an elected position, having served on the El Dorado School for more than three years before resigning last June, effective July 1, to prepare for his mayoral campaign.
He was initially appointed to a vacant position on the school board and was elected for each term thereafter.
Lutman noted that the question about his eligibility to run for and hold political office did not arise during his tenure on the school board.
He said he learned about the specially called civil service meeting when White called him into his (White’s) office about 45 minutes after the meeting adjourned.
“I’m thankful this happened because it clears up a lot of questions for a lot of people,” Lutman said, adding that he had done his own research, including looking into the Hatch Act.
Pitard, Kinslow and White said concerns arose about Lutman’s duties as a police officer and his interaction with the public as he launches a political campaign.
“There was a question about him writing a ticket and what if the person he stops is a supporter of his opponent,” White said.
“My comment was he serves as community liaison officer, and that does not entail writing tickets on a daily basis. That’s mostly patrol officers,” the police chief said.
Pitard said that while commissioners still have some trepidation about Lutman running for mayor as a police officer, they would defer to state law.
“As a commission, it’s our job to vet these things and keep the politics out of it (police and fire operations),” Pitard said.
Tia Lyons may be contacted at 870-862-6611 or email@example.com.