making local government more ethical

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Nepotism seems to be more a matter of taste than other conflict provisions. Everyone knows that it looks bad to hire members of one's own family, but many people feel that government is like business, and in business people do this all the time. What is family for?

What are your thoughts on including nepotism in a municipal ethics code, and what are your experiences with such provisions and with the conflict itself?

100(13). Nepotism

  1. Unless he or she obtains a waiver pursuant to 213, no official or employee* may appoint or hire his or her spouse or domestic partner*, child or step-child, sibling or step-sibling, parent, or member of his or her household* for any type of employment, including by contract (unless competitively bid pursuant to 103), with the city.

  2. No official or employee* may supervise or be in a direct line of supervision over his or her spouse or domestic partner*, child or step-child, sibling or step-sibling, parent, or member of his or her household*. If an official or employee* comes into a direct line of supervision over one of these persons, he or she will have six months to come into compliance or to obtain a waiver.
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Robert Wechsler says:

Many children choose one of their parents' professions, and there is great pride in this. A retired Topeka, Kansas Fire Department administrator, and son of a former Topeka fire chief, is quoted in a recent article as saying "I am proud to follow in the footsteps of family."

In fact, 25 Topeka firefighters had members of their families in the department when they joined.

Would a rule against nepotism (even one that grandfathered in these firefighters and others like them) be in the public's best interest? When employees do not make decisions that greatly affect the community, why is nepotism harmful?

For one thing, it makes it harder to bring in minorities. If a sizeable percentage of new hires are of the same color as current employees, the racial makeup of a firefighting force will change slowly.

Also, problems are created when it comes time to give raises and promotions. How can newcomers know that they are being passed by only because they're not doing as good a job? The public interest is harmed by nepotism when qualified outsiders do not apply for jobs or leave when passed over.

Nepotism can also be very bad for morale on a daily basis. The one time I experienced it in the workplace, a wife took advantage of her husband's position in the company and created such bad feeling, she had to leave the firm. Bad morale means inefficient government.

From another perspective, officials and employees are put in an awkward position when required to choose between a family member and others. Whatever they do, they lose unless, of course, they don't feel a conflict at all, but feel comfortable putting their family obligations ahead of those to the city's residents.

And nepotism, even if everyone acts fairly, looks bad. Governments are supposed to treat everyone equally. Nepotism is a slap in the face of equal treatment. It undermines public trust in government and leads unconnected people to not consider government service.

The best solution is for people to go into the same profession, but do it somewhere else or do it in the private sector. However, in sprawling modern cities, it is harder to work for another city or town than it is in older cities, where they're closer to home. But then one must decide whether staying in the same community is more important than being in the particular line of work. If one's own desires are all that matters, if one must have it both ways, that should be a sign that the person is not cut out for government service.

Robert Wechsler
Director of Research-Retired, City Ethics
[email protected]

Dave (not verified) says:

Nepotism needs to be defined. Nepotism is not merely the existence of multiple family members working in the same local government agency. There is no prohibition against that. The use of favoritism or exertion of influence is what constitutes nepotism. However, the existence of multiple family members in the local government agency creates a precarious situation and raises three important questions: 1) How did the family members receive their jobs, 2) Are any of these family members in a supervisory/subordinate relationship with each other and 3) Are any of these family members acting in their official capacity on matters that could reasonably be expected to impact the employment conditions or financial well-being of other family members.

In a well-developed ethics code, there does not need to be a specific provision prohibiting nepotism because other provisions will address the prohibited conduct or actions that constitute nepotism. For instance, no local government officer or employee shall use or attempt to use his official position to secure unwarranted privileges or advantages for himself or others. Further, no local government officer or employee shall act in his official capacity in any matter where he or a member of his immediate family has a direct or indirect financial or personal involvement that might reasonably be expected to impair his objectivity or independence of judgment.

You commented that nepotism "seems to be more a matter of taste than other conflict provisions" and that "many people feel that government is like business, and in business people do this all the time." Fact is: government is NOT like a business and officials who pursue office with personal gain in mind are headed for trouble. Government officers and employees should not be expected to be without personal and private interests. The problem occurs when those interests are corruptive of democracy and free society. The unwarranted use or attempted use of position and influence is the nexus that breeds ethics violations.

Meat Slicer (not verified) says:

People say the word as if its bad why ?