Potential violation of federal law alleged at council meeting

By Brandon Martin and Debbie Hall

The legality of a Martinsville City Council member’s job as an enumerator in the nationwide census was called into question Tuesday by a fellow council member.

Jim Woods alleged at an Oct. 13 council meeting that Danny Turner violated the 1939 Hatch Act by working as an enumerator for the Census Bureau.

Woods said his own experience prompted him to initially raise the issue at a previous meeting.

“I tried to re-up with them” as an enumerator, after serving in a similar capacity in 2010, Woods said. When filling out the application, Woods said he was asked if he held an elected post.

“I clicked ‘Yes,’ and it said I was disqualified,” he added.

Woods said he also contacted an official with the Census Bureau and was told “that no elected official could do it (participate) because of the Hatch Act. I sent an email, and he said ‘no, you’re restricted by the Hatch Act.’”

In a Sept. 22 email to Michael Stowers, Senior Partnership Specialist with the US Census Bureau, Woods wrote, “I was checking to see if local politicians are allowed to be engaged by the US Census Bureau as volunteer enumerators. When I had attempted to re-up with you all in 2020 (as I was an enumerator in 2010 as a private citizen), I was disqualified because of my position on City Council.  I would appreciate it if you would clear up any confusion.”

On Sept. 23, Stowers replied, “Sorry to hear that you cannot participate due to the Hatch Act restrictions. Overall, the Census is winding down anyway.”

Woods said Vice-Mayor Chad Martin thought elected officials could volunteer to help with the census.

However, whether Turner volunteered or was paid is “immaterial. You cannot enumerate for the census if you’re elected,” Woods said, and noted that Martin was hired to help engage the community with the census, but that position was paid by the United Way.

On the other hand, Turner’s work could potentially present a conflict of interest for local government representatives because census participation numbers directly affect the amount of federal funds localities receive, Woods said.

“I’m hoping Mr. Turner is not in violation of the Hatch Act,” Woods said. But, “you cannot count for the census. That’s federal law.”

According to the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, ​​​​​​the Hatch Act limits certain political activities of federal employees, as well as some state, D.C., and local government employees who work in connection with federally funded programs.

The Census Employee Handbook states that Congress amended the Hatch Act in 1993 to “permit more political activity by federal” and other applicable employees. With the 1993 amendments, many federal employees are now permitted to take an active part in political management or in political campaigns.

The Department of Commerce, of which the Census Bureau is a part, is covered by the 1993 amendments; therefore, temporary, part-time, and regularly scheduled Census Bureau employees are covered by provisions of the Act and may participate more freely in political activities.”

The handbook states that employees covered by the 1993 provisions may “be candidates for public office in nonpartisan” elections. This is defined as “not affiliated with an individual political party.”

However, if elected, the handbook says that “an employee must resign their Census Bureau appointment or decline the elected position.” Chapter 2 of the handbook discusses “outside activities and conflicts of interest.” The first restricted “outside activity” listed involves or appears to involve a conflict of interest.

Additionally, the manual states that “a few conditions or situations that may create confusion in the respondent’s mind as to whom you represent and affect the publics’ trust in the Bureau of the Census or possibly your ability to do your job.”

Employment as a law enforcer, tax collector, social worker, or door-to-door salesperson were examples of positions that could confuse respondents.

Turner said he spent 12 days as an enumerator, and in addition to Martinsville, also worked in other areas, including Henry and Franklin counties.

As Turner understands it, a violation would not occur “unless I’m a full-time” government employee. As it is, his work was “not a violation of federal law. I asked every step of the way if it was a violation of the Hatch Act and no, it is not.”

Stowers did not return a call for comment.

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