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Make campaign rules consistent

In most local political races, someone wins and someone loses and then everyone moves on.

Not so with last year's county commissioner race between C.W. Smith, the incumbent, and Jim Olney, the challenger.

Smith won in November. All appeared quiet until this month, when rumors began circulating that Olney felt county officials caused him to lose his job as director of the local library foundation during the campaign.

A story in Friday's Mail Tribune outlined Olney's complaints, which allege that county officials misused the power of their offices to affect the results of the race.

What actually happened here? That's not clear, mostly because library foundation representatives don't want to talk about Olney's employment. Olney since has moved to Eugene, where he's taken a job doing similar work.

The foundation's reluctance to talk about everything that happened and a state election official's description of the law in this area as unclear mean it will be tough for Olney to prove his allegations or to do much about it if he can prove them.

But the claims do provide a good opportunity for the county to get clearer itself about how it approaches campaigns by people sitting in public offices.

In their comments in Friday's story, local officials seemed to think different rules should apply to campaigning elected officials such as Smith than to others with potential conflicts.

Because he's elected, Smith said, he has the latitude to discuss anything he wants whenever he wants. County Commissioner Dave Gilmour said he would not run a campaign from his office but that it's difficult to avoid all campaign business on county time.

Olney, of course, was not a county employee at all; he was employed by a nonprofit organization that used free office space supplied by the county. At some point during the race, a concern was raised about whether he was in effect campaigning from that office. After foundation leaders met with Gilmour and County Administrator Danny Jordan on the matter, Olney resigned.

The no-campaigning rule strikes us as appropriate even if it is hard to follow at times (and in full disclosure, we should note that the Mail Tribune has posed campaign questions to campaigning officials on county time). But it is just as appropriate for elected officials as it is for others, especially when those elected officials are being paid salaries, as county commissioners are, to serve the public. Jackson County would do well to define the rules consistently and clearly for everyone.

At the same time, there's no reason any campaigning rule should be so limiting that a nonprofit or public employee can't run for office.

Here it appears that Olney's effort to serve the public cost him his job.

Whatever questions his campaign may have raised for the library foundation and the county that employed him, that shouldn't have been necessary.