Indiana Firefighter Gets Reprieve from Retire or Relinquish Elected Office Dilemma

An Indiana firefighter and four government employees have received a reprieve on the implementation of a new law that would prohibit them from holding elective office in the jurisdiction in which they are employed.

Michael Opinker is a firefighter for the City of Hammond and he was also elected the serve on the Hammond City Council. A law enacted in 2012 prohibits government employees from serving in elected office in the same jurisdiction they work. The law is scheduled to go into effect on January 1, 2016. It was intended to prevent self-dealing by employees would otherwise might be voting on granting raises to themselves.

Opinker and four other elected officials/employees in Lake County filed suit in US District Court earlier this year asserting federal and state law claims. Judge Philip Simon ruled against Opinker and the others earlier this month finding no violations of federal law. The plaintiffs then refiled the case in state court where today Lake County Circuit Court Judge George Paras granted them a temporary restraining order against the enforcement of the law.

Judge Paras concluded that the officials established the threat of irreparable harm because they were forced to choose by January 1, 2016 between their jobs and serving as duly elected official. He also concluded the state would not be harmed by the granting of the temporary order until a full hearing could be held.

The state has moved for a new judge to be assigned. No word on when the case will be heard. One of the other Plaintiffs, Scott Rakos, already resigned from the Hammond Fire Department and is a Hammond City Councilman-elect.

More on the story.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer’s Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.

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