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A Cambridge City Council employee decided to run for a seat. Then the city changed its rules.

Cambridge City Council candidate Adrienne Klein also serves as the director of constituent services for Cambridge's mayor. Shortly after Klein decided to launch her campaign, city officials enacted a new policy forcing any council employee to either resign or go on unpaid leave while running for elected city office.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Running for Cambridge City Council often means facing a massive field of candidates. But Adrienne Klein didn’t expect to be at odds with city leaders, too.

Shortly after Klein, a council aide, decided to launch her campaign, city officials enacted a new policy forcing any council employee to either resign or go on unpaid leave while running for elected city office, arguing that doing both could create the appearance of a conflict of interest.

The situation has quickly rankled Cambridge’s tight-knit political world and split ethics experts on whether such a rule is necessary, or even fair.

City officials say it’s also pushed Cambridge’s already unusual electoral system into uncharted territory: Klein is not only vying for a spot on the nine-member legislative body against roughly 20 other candidates, but also her boss, Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui. That, Cambridge’s city manager said, creates the potential for a conflict for an employee who is working for a councilor with a specific policy agenda that may differ from the employee’s own as a candidate.

The city’s new policy, which takes effect Monday, so far applies to only Klein, who works as the director of constituent services for Siddiqui, the council’s top official, who is running for reelection.

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The mother of a 22-month-old and her home’s sole breadwinner, Klein, 35, said she had no intention of leaving her job while running for office. She also doesn’t plan to withdraw from the race.

After consulting with city officials, Klein submitted an ethics filing disclosing the potential for an appearance of a conflict. But she said she’s also spoken directly with staff at the state ethics commission and the Office of Campaign and Political Finance, and she doesn’t believe there is a conflict in running for the office where she currently works, a common pipeline for new candidates.

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“This puts an unnecessary barrier in place to running for office,” Klein said of the policy. “It’s directed toward me — that’s been made clear — and it’s adversely affecting my employment, which affects my ability to run. And that’s scary.”

Given they created the policy after Klein decided to run, city officials are prepared to put her on paid leave for 30 days starting Monday, after which she would be subject to the new rule and face being unpaid. Yi-An Huang, Cambridge’s city manager, acknowledged that it’s “not a great situation,” but he said city officials felt a responsibility to put a policy in place that “protects the credibility of the city government.”

Huang said officials crafted the policy after Siddiqui contacted him and asked “that we look into this.” Siddiqui did not respond to a request for comment.

“It is a complex circumstance,” Huang said. “We’ve never seen this happen before, and we tried to be really careful and thoughtful about this.”

He argued that non-elected public employees already face more stringent ethics rules than elected ones, and while an elected city councilor must also juggle public duties with a campaign when running, there is a “stronger conflict when you’re working under an elected official while running your own competing campaign.”

“If Joe Biden’s chief of staff stepped up tomorrow and said, ‘I’m going to enter the Democratic primary,’ I don’t think most people would look at that and say, ‘You should continue to be Joe Biden’s chief of staff,’” Huang said.

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All nine seats on the Cambridge City Council are on the November ballot. Candidates have until the end of the month to submit nomination papers, but more than 20 have already signaled they’re running. The nine councilors are elected at large through a system known as proportional representation, in which voters rank their choices. At one time, Cambridge was the only municipality in the country to elect its city council through such an at-large system, according to a study by the nonprofit FairVote.

The new policy, which Huang signed on Thursday, states that a council employee who is running for a council seat should resign or go on unpaid leave because otherwise the candidacy “could create the appearance of a conflict of interest” and cause “confusion to the public, such as confusion regarding whether someone is acting as a City employee on behalf of a current City Council or or acting in their capacity as a candidate.”

Employees on leave can then request to return to their job once they “conclude all political activity for a City elected office,” though that is subject to the city manager’s approval.

Jeanne Kempthorne, a former state ethics commissioner, said generally, ethics regulators are worried about people misusing their office for private gain or to benefit those close to them. An employee simply choosing to run for the public office in which they work creates “no inherent conflict,” she said.

“Wouldn’t then an incumbent have to resign from office in order to run, too? How is it different?” she said. “You’re talking about someone in a low-level staff position simply running. The public interest undergirding such a policy just doesn’t carry much weight.”

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Further, she said, putting up a barrier for certain people to run acts as a “burden on democracy.”

“Is it only rich people who get to run?” she asked.

George Brown, a former chair of the state ethics commission and professor emeritus at Boston College, said he believes the city is legally on solid ground in enacting the policy. A current employee, he said, could enjoy a “built-in advantage” for seeking the office that others don’t have.

“Is it somehow creating an uneven playing field for somebody who’s currently [working in] there? My gut says yes,” he said.

Another City Council candidate, Dan Totten, also was a City Council aide when he decided to run. But Totten opted to resign, not because of the policy, he said, but because he believes he could not fully devote himself to both his campaign and his job.

Totten said he would have been “uncomfortable” both working and running for the council simultaneously.

“Everybody’s situation is different and the barriers to running for City Council are immense,” Totten said. “It’s important to strike a balance between managing an appearance of a conflict of interest and not disenfranchising people who really want to run for office and who are permitted to under state ethics and campaign finance [rules]. The state is not saying no.”

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Totten questioned why the policy is aimed at City Council employees and doesn’t extend to an employee in the city manager’s office who decides to run for City Council.

“I would contend there could be an inherent conflict of interest, too,” he said. “I wonder, why not?”


Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him @mattpstout.