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Is nepotism policy OK?

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MARCIA A. NELESEN
August 28, 2008
— An assistant professor who teaches ethics in government recommends against a Janesville city policy that encourages nepotism.

And at least two council members said the policy didn’t sit well with them when they heard about it on a recent bus tour.


A 2006 city e-mail directs supervisors to fill seasonal positions first with the children of current and retired city employees. The e-mail directive differs from the procedure outlined in an administrative policy—the e-mail encourages hiring relatives, the administrative policy simply allows it.


Curtis Wood, an assistant professor of public administration at Northern Illinois University, said such a policy could create a perception of unfair hiring practices.


As it turns out, an ongoing situation at the city ice arena involving the teenage relative of City Manager Steve Sheiffer shows how hiring relatives might present problems.


Council President Amy Loasching recalls first hearing about the e-mail policy during an April 19 bus tour.


“Steve (Sheiffer) came up and gathered us up together and said, ‘Hey, if any of you (have) kids you want hired, just let me know,’” she recalled.


“My initial reaction was, ‘This is wrong,’” Loasching said.


Several council members said they saw the 2006 e-mail in their city council meeting packets a short time later.


Loasching agrees that city residents should be hired before non-city residents.


But she believes employees should be hired based on their abilities and not on whom they know, she said.


When she said something to that effect to Sheiffer, she said, he answered that other companies have similar policies.


He’s right about that, Loasching said.


“I still don’t think it makes it right, no matter who’s doing it,” she said.


“It should go to the most qualified (or if), as a city, we maybe look at those who really need (the jobs).”


Councilman Yuri Rashkin said Sheiffer’s announcement on the bus tour caught him by surprise, especially because many people were around, including staff. Everybody appeared to know about the policy, and nobody seemed to have problems with it, he said.


“It was so ‘upfront,’” he said. “That’s kind of what surprised me. There was no air of misappropriateness about it. This is just how things operate.”


He remembers wondering if the policy was a perk.


“It just sounded … strange,” he added. “It just didn’t sit right.”


Rashkin said he let it go because he didn’t think the administration would do anything inappropriate.


Councilman Tom McDonald said it didn’t really concern him at the time.


“I guess from what I remember, it didn’t necessarily sound like a policy … It (the hiring practice) just sounded (like) what they do. They hire children of city of Janesville workers.


“To see it as a written policy at some point was a little bit more interesting. At the same time, since it was summer help, maybe (that’s) a little different than full-time employees.”


Public perception

Wood, the assistant professor at Northern Illinois University, teaches ethics in government.


“I would not recommend such a policy, even formal or informal, in the public sector because of the perception that it’s not fair,” he said.


“The perception is that it’s not right, and that’s what I would think the perception of the public would be.


“I don’t think it’s wise.”


Wood said he once worked at a city where the children of employees were hired. It worked well because the parents’ presence provided extra incentive for the children to do well.


“But from the perspective of citizens … who are wanting to apply for these jobs and can’t, it’s not fair.”


Councilmember George Brunner said he believes the perception already exists among some residents, whether warranted or not.


“Citizens develop perceptions, and when they develop those perceptions, they draw conclusions without having all the facts,” he said.


He mentioned, for instance, the recent hiring of Tim Wellnitz as assistant city attorney.


Wellnitz is the son of Steve Sheiffer’s longtime secretary and is a former council member. Once Brunner viewed the hiring history of the position, however, he was convinced the hiring was handled correctly.


“I think there’s a fine line between hiring temporary, limited-term employees for summer help and to do jobs at minimum or close to minimum wage … as long as its exactly what it’s meant to be—limited-term employment.


“But sometimes, if it all of a sudden develops into full-time employment, it creates an issue.”


Christopher Marschman, spokesperson for the state Department of Workforce Development, said the city’s 2006 e-mail policy is not illegal.


“Such a policy is legal provided it doesn’t have a disparate impact on any given protected group,” he said.


“The seasonal policy to give preference to employee family members would potentially be a problem if it were to lead to discrimination of others in the hiring process,” he said.


“A formal complaint and Equal Rights Division investigation would be necessary to determine if an actual violation took place.”


When asked to comment, Steve Sheiffer responded with a letter to The Janesville Gazette.


“I would have assumed that if any of the recipients of that e-mail found the e-mail to be inappropriate or contrary to the city’s nepotism policy that they would have brought the matter to my attention or the attention of our HR director or city attorney,” Sheiffer wrote.


“To my knowledge, that did not occur.”



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