SANDPOINT — The supervisor of the Bonner County Sheriff’s Marine Patrol resigned Tuesday to avoid being in conflict with a federal law regulating public employees involved in partisan elections.
Lt. Cary Kelly, who is running for the Republican nomination for the District 3 seat on the Bonner County Commission, discovered last week that his candidacy could bring him into conflict with the Hatch Act.
Enacted in 1939, the Hatch Act restricts the political activity of individuals principally employed by state, county or municipal agencies which accept federal funding. In Kelly’s case, he supervises a department which is sustained in part with federal grant funding from the U.S. Coast Guard.
Kelly said he has no regrets stepping down from the supervisory post he’s had for the last 11 years.
“I don’t have any heartburn with doing it,” said Kelly, who is challenging incumbent Commissioner Lewie Rich for the GOP nomination this May.
Kelly said he had already planned to resign if he prevailed in the primary. It’s also the marine patrol’s off-season. Sergeant Ron Raiha will serve as interim supervisor until Kelly’s replacement is named.
Kelly also has a sense of humor about the situation, noting that a Pennsylvania police officer in a canine unit was recently barred from running for a school board seat because his black Labrador was tied to federal funding from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
“If a guy can’t run for school board because of his black Labrador, I’m sure it applies to me,” he said of the Hatch Act.
The federal Office of Special Counsel, which administers the Hatch Act, said it receives more than 2,000 inquiries a year whether a particular candidate in a state or local race is eligible to run and some are calling for an overhaul of the 73-year-old law.
There are also instances of the Hatch Act being used as ordnance in political warfare, although Kelly said he has no reason to believe political motivations were behind the issue being raised in his case.
Bonner County Prosecutor Louis Marshall advised Kelly of the potential conflict last week. Marshall did not respond to a request Tuesday for comment on how his office came to raise the issue.
It’s also not clear why the Hatch Act issue has not surfaced in prior elections. In the past two sheriff’s elections, for instance, employed deputies have run for sheriff even though the department is the recipient of federal funding.