Shelby County Democratic Party Chairman Matt Kuhn might have shot at the right target, but his aim is way too low.

In the end, he and others in the leadership of our local political parties tend to gag on gnats while swallowing camels. That’s certainly true in this case.

While he was firing off his letter about the use of county stationary by mayoral candidate John Willingham, Mr. Kuhn should have used his time to also send a letter to his Republican Party counterpart asking that they get together to develop standards for the use of county personnel and money.

Mr. Kuhn’s complaint against Commissioner Willingham was handled by District Attorney General Bill Gibbons in keeping with the political calculus that has come to characterize his office. In addition to Commissioner Willingham, Mr. Kuhn also complained about Shelby County Register Bob Patterson inserting his annual flyer about taxes into our property tax bills, a grievance whose argument seems especially thin in its justification. Most interesting to county insiders is the fact that Mr. Kuhn didn’t raise any questions about some of District Attorney General Gibbons’ activities, which have raised eyebrows in the Courthouse for some time.

Hiring in the Campaign Season

The local political scene is replete with examples of staff members hired a few months before a campaign to assume “community relations, “public information” and jobs with vague duties, and with “information brochures” that appear only as the election season approaches. As a result, there’s often a fine line separating a “Rose Garden” strategy from exploiting public employees and coffers for political ends.

It’s not unusual to find numerous county employees – especially those who are dependent on appointments for their jobs – on political contribution lists (where their membership often comes under duress) or to see them at political events, sometimes while on county time and the county payroll. There have been lists of campaign donors kept on public computers by county employees, and there are times when employees have written campaign releases, organized political events and even called the news media while at their desks.

Mr. Kuhn and his Republican Party colleague have the chance to show real leadership in putting their parties on the front lines fighting to restore the public’s confidence in government. They can do it by setting a higher standard for their candidates and their elected officials when it comes to the use of county property and personnel. They can do it by establishing rules that draw a clear and unconfusing line between public jobs and political activities.

Setting Firm Rules

They can start by calling for a policy that forbids county employees from contributing to political races, that forbids employees from doing any political work while on county time, that forbids public employees from attending political events during their work hours and that forbids the expenditure of any county money or use of county property for political purposes. Surely these are principles that both parties can embrace.

There’s more that should be done, but this would be a strong beginning. Of course, we’re assuming that Mr. Kuhn’s concern – born from an upbringing by two parents passionate about public issues – is more than just political posturing and that he’s serious about reforming the system.

He wrote Attorney General Gibbons about an improper use of county stationary, but in the end, the real problem isn’t about paper; it’s about people…publicly paid people often routinely involved in political activities.

Mr. Kuhn’s raised the issue and as a result, the ball’s in his court. By addressing this serious issue in a serious way, he could establish his most impressive legacy as head of the party faithful.