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As calls for Police Chief Dotson to resign continue, what do the laws say?

August 2014 St. Louis Metropolitan Police Chief Sam Dotson
File photo | Bill Greenblatt |UPI
St. Louis Metropolitan Police Chief Sam Dotson, pictured here in August 2014, continues to resist stepping down as he runs for mayor.

The decision by St. Louis Metropolitan Police Chief Sam Dotson to run for mayor without resigning his current post isn’t a very popular one.

On the day Dotson announced he was running, Mayor Francis Slay said in a statement that he “will not condone a part-time police chief. Chief Dotson should be completely focused on the job he has. Our city deserves no less.”

Two weeks later, a group of aldermen led by Joe Roddy, D-17th Ward, introduced a resolution expressing a very similar sentiment.

“Our country has a long history dating back to 1828 of working to protect the integrity of our public employees through some sort of merit system,” Roddy said following a committee hearing on the measure on Tuesday. “It blurs the line when you go ahead and permit civil service employees to run for office. It’s particularly concerning given the authority that’s vested in the police chief. It’s a terrible precedent for us to set.”

In his announcement, Dotson resisted any calls to resign. And the resolution, even if it passes the full Board of Aldermen, is not a legal document that could force him to step down.

So – who’s legally right?

According to the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, a 2012 update to the Hatch Act loosened restrictions on the ability of employees of state and local governments to run for office. Before the change, any employee who worked in connection with programs financed in part by the federal government could not run for a partisan political office. With the change, there are only two limits:

1.    An employee’s salary cannot be entirely – that’s 100 percent – funded by federal grants.

2.    State and local laws trump whatever permission is granted under the Hatch Act.

So what does state law say? It pretty clearly gives Dotson the right to run.

“No political subdivision of this state shall prohibit any first responder [that includes police officers] from engaging in any political activity while off duty and not in uniform, being a candidate for elected or appointed public office, or holding such office unless such political activity or candidacy is otherwise prohibited by state or federal law.”

Local regulations, however, are a different story.

The city charter allows anyone holding a civil service position — since 2013, this includes police officers – to seek or accept election to public office, "provided, however, that no active campaign for election shall be conducted by any employee unless he shall first resign from his position." A civil service rule contains much the same language and defines active campaigning as, “among other things, the act of officially filing for election to public office and/or publicly announcing the intention to run for public office.”

Filing for the municipal primary officially opens Nov. 28, so Dotson is OK under the first prong of the definition of active campaign. But, he emailed a statement to members of the media announcing his candidacy and has formed a political committee.

Two key questions are unanswered here. First, what does “active campaign” actually mean? And second, with St. Louis being a home rule city, which trumps – the city charter or the state law? Courts have consistently recognized the right of cities to limit the political activity of their employees, but there does not appear to have been a case addressing what happens when a state law explicitly gives certain employees the right to certain political activity.

Dotson's choices are pretty clear. He can decide not to run and keep his current job, resign at some point in the process, or not resign and continue his campaign. What's not entirely clear is what happens if he picks option three.

Both an aldermanic committee and the full Board of Aldermen could vote Friday on Roddy's resolution. The committee delayed a vote on Tuesday to add language referencing the importance of the Civil Service Commission

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.

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