Phoenix’s workforce of municipal employees — and their local unions — will have a more powerful voice in future elections for mayor and City Council after city leaders voted Tuesday to loosen restrictions on workers’ political activity.
The 9-0 vote was a rare moment of unity among the council’s liberal and conservative wings, with members of all stripes arguing the free-speech rights of city workers need better protection.
For many years, city policy banned employees from publicly sharing their opinions about candidates for city office, aside from voting or privately expressing a view. Council members said that goes against the U.S. Constitution.
Steve Beuerlein, president of the powerful firefighters union, said the city’s current policy is too limiting and city employees should have the same rights as other residents.
“It’s unconstitutional and it is unjust,” he told the council. “There are few things more sacred than our First Amendment right to free speech.”
The changes will allow city employees to do things like display yard signs at their homes, express opinions about a candidate in a public setting, post opinions on personal social media or sign candidate nomination or recall petitions.
City employees still cannot engage in any political activities while on duty, wearing a city uniform, presenting themselves in an official capacity or using city resources.
Candidate opposed move
One critic of the move was council candidate Chris DeRose, an attorney running in the city’s November special election. He said it could open the door for elected officials to use their positions to pressure employees to campaign for them.
DeRose suggested the move could “import Chicago-style politics into Phoenix,” saying his grandfather who worked for that city had been forced to support the elections of aldermen.
The new ordinance takes effect Nov. 9, after the city’s special election. There could be a March runoff in that race.
Members: Previous interpretation too narrow
Council members Laura Pastor and Daniel Valenzuela, Democrats supported by city unions, said they proposed changes in Phoenix because the city has interpreted its City Charter and a related ordinance too narrowly.
“When city employees are on their own time, away from the job, living their personal lives, they should have the same freedoms guaranteed to each of us by the Constitution,” Valenzuela said in a statement after the vote.
The debate at Tuesday’s council meeting often hinged on how the city interprets its charter language about political activity, which states that employees cannot take part in the “political management, affairs or campaigns in any election for city of Phoenix elective office” other than to vote or privately sharing opinions.
The council members’ vote did not change that language, but they amended the city ordinance to loosen how Phoenix interprets it in practice.
A city attorney said employees still cannot circulate nomination or recall petitions for city candidates because that would involve the affairs of a campaign. They also cannot contribute money.