MOUNT VERNON — With the March 6 primary election just weeks away, candidates in contested races are knocking on doors and shaking the bushes in the quest for a winning edge at the polls.
In the race for Knox County Sheriff, the Republican primary pits two experienced law enforcement officers against each other who have worked together for years. Due to complicated tenets of the Ohio Revised Code governing eligibility to run for sheriff, one of them is mounting his election bid part-time while working full-time, and the other is running full-time while working part-time.
Knox County Sheriff’s Department Capt. David Shaffer of Butler remains on the job as he seeks to replace his boss, Sheriff David Barber, who will retire at the end of the year after 20 years as sheriff.
Shaffer’s opponent, Roger Brown of Fredericktown, served as a detective sergeant in the sheriff’s office until December, when he had to resign in order to be eligible to run for the office of sheriff. In the meantime, Brown maintains his peace officer accreditation by volunteering as a Fredericktown special deputy.
At first glance it may seem unusual, or even preferential, that two employees in the sheriff’s office would be treated differently in determining their eligibility to run for sheriff. Both candidates meet all of the basic requirements such as citizenship, county residency, supervisory experience, submission of residency and employment histories, going through a background check and having a squeaky clean criminal record.
The difference? Brown was considered “an employee in the classified service of the state” under the Ohio Revised Code, while Shaffer is exempt from the “classified service” designation. Shaffer, as an unclassified employee, is not afforded civil service protections, while Brown, as a classified employee, was. And Ohio law prohibits classified employees from participating in partisan politics.
Ohio law, according to Assistant Knox County Prosecutor Chip McConville, was drafted in such a way as to avoid “Tammany Hall-type operations” where elected officials attempt to stack their office staff with political operatives.
“All elected officials are required to have a list of unclassified employees,” McConville explained. “They are people who serve at the pleasure of the elected official (Sheriff Barber in this case), and they can be fired at any time for any reason.” There is no prohibition of partisan political activity for unclassified employees, which allows Shaffer to campaign for office while still employed by the sheriff.
The portion of the Revised Code related to eligibility for the sheriff’s race was last reviewed in 2010 and is scheduled for review again in 2015.
State Rep. Margaret Ann Ruhl points out that the provision is not a new one. “The law applies equally to all classified employees,” she said, “and it has been used in the past, when Sheriff Barber first ran for office (in 1992). He had to resign before he could run. I haven’t heard any complaints about the law and see no reason to make any changes.”
On March 6, the next chapter of their respective careers will be in the hands of the people of Knox County