Nepotism in Sullivan County, Tennessee

compiled by Lewis Loflin

Nepotism is a chronic problem in low-wage and job-poor communities such as Sullivan County and surrounding areas. Most job growth is in services (Burger King, Wal-Mart, temp agencies, etc.) leaving the government as the only real source of jobs that pay a living wage and benefits. Only those that go to the proper church, proper family, etc. gets these jobs while the "white trash" people are refused employment even with a college degree. It isn't in writing, it's just part of the culture.

Update for 2008: Sullivan County officials after 7 years still won't deal with the chronic nepotism problem here. To quote the Kingsport Times-News 2020-2007, (Commissioner) McConnell first proposed a policy to ban allowing relatives to work for one another in county departments last April. But his proposal failed to gain much support among fellow commissioners. Some said there was no point in commission action at that point because the state legislature's session was coming to a close and it wouldn't reconvene until this month. The Tennessee General Assembly would have to approve a private act in order for Sullivan County to implement a nepotism policy.

01/12/2007 Kingsport Times-News (extract) State lawmakers should enact anti-nepotism law

A renewed proposal by Sullivan County Commissioner Wayne McConnell to establish a nepotism policy deserves serious consideration. It also points up a yawning oversight in state law...it garnered little support...McConnell plans to introduce his no-nepotism resolution to the full Sullivan County Commission Jan. 16 and will ask for a vote when it comes up for a second reading in February...Throughout most of the region's county governments, there has long been an ethically suspect tradition of relatives working for one another...

Nepotism an issue in county, city government in Tennessee

Relatives common among school system employees.

KINGSPORT - An old joke says that the only way to get a local government job in Tennessee is to get elected - and if you can't get elected, wait until your uncle does. There's a kernel of truth at the heart of the jest, according to a number professional government consultants. There are some instances of officials in Northeast Tennessee's numerous governments employing family members.

"I've been around the courthouses for about 32 years, and I've seen it," said Johnny Headrick, a field consultant for the County Technical Advisory Service, which is operated by the University of Tennessee's Institute for Public Service. CTAS doesn't advise county officials one way or the other on the issue, he said, instead leaving elected officials to find their own way around it.

Even though it may give the appearance of a conflict of interest, Headrick said, he's never seen the employment of relatives cause trouble. "I've never really noticed any problems," he said. According to UT's Institute for Public Service, the likelihood of finding someone working for a relative at the county courthouse increases as population decreases.

In Hawkins County, population 53,563, County Clerk Donna Alvis and Trustee Jerry Stewart both have relatives on the payroll. Both officials sued the county for more money three times in recent years - which will mean more money in the pockets of their kin, among others, if the suits are successful - a daughter and sister-in-law, respectively.

Both officials say they're not suing to get more money for relatives but for employees who do their jobs well and deserve to be paid more. All six lawsuits are still pending, but mediation is set for sometime early next year. Even in larger counties, some instances of relatives working for each other can be found. In Washington County, Clerk and Master Diana Borman, whose sister is a deputy in her office, sued the county for more money two years in a row.

Third Judicial District Chancellor Thomas Frierson released a ruling in early September 2000 saying Borman's chief deputies were entitled to more money for their jobs. Frierson awarded the three - including Boarman's sister, Deborah Saylor - a pay hike of $1,012 for 1998-99, an additional $1,300 hike for 1999-2000, and a 2.2 percent plus unspecified longevity pay for 2000-01.

Boarman testified at the 2000 trial that all of her employees were chosen because of their skill and presented a pay study to back up her allegation that they were underpaid. The case has since been appealed. In Sullivan County - the state's sixth largest - Director of Schools John O'Dell's brother is the principal at Emmett Elementary School. O'Dell said he has taken himself out of the review process for all matters concerning principal Jim O'Dell.

Favoritism in hiring practices is hard to control at the county level because of Tennessee's approach to the division of power, according to one consultant. Tennessee splits a county's executive power - to enforce laws and carry out the mandates of the General Assembly - among several offices.

The top executive is the county executive, who in some cases holds veto power over the county commission. But that office doesn't hold all the executive cards, as does the governor at the state level. The county's sheriff, property assessor, trustee and county clerk and the register of deeds all hold directly elected offices with executive functions that are subject to only state and federal oversight.

The county legislative body can make laws for the various officeholders to enforce, but the day-to-day operations of the office are off limits to the commission. Only Roane County, located one county west of Knoxville, has been granted authority by the legislature to regulate whom officeholders can hire, said Headrick.

In some cases in smaller counties, Headrick said, putting a relative on the job can actually be a good thing, since it adds another layer of accountability to the system. Even so, Hawkins County has attempted to address the situation. The Hawkins County Commission passed a resolution in 1995 denouncing the practice.

"Whereas it has come to the attention of the County Commission that certain department heads are hiring relatives to fill positions ... various members of the County Commission have received complaints regarding the propriety of said employment in that it is nepotism and has the appearance of impropriety. ... Therefore be it resolved that the commission does not approve of nepotism in any office,'' the resolution states. It passed by a vote of 16-3.

Cities are generally in a better position when it comes to controlling who gets hired as public servants, according to UT's Municipal Technical Advisory Service. Most cities with populations over 10,000 have some kind of policy in place that at least forbids an individual from being the direct supervisor of a relative, said Pat Hardy, an MTAS consultant based in Johnson City. Still, many Tennessee cities are so small that employment issues aren't issues at all, he said. "Over in Unicoi they only have one employee," Hardy said. "Do they need to have an employment policy? Probably, but it's not a burning issue."

Governments in Tennessee are simply behind the employment policy curve in relation to the private sector, according to both CTAS and MTAS officials. In some cases, county commissioners work for the departments they supervise. Sullivan County Commissioner Mark Vance is the head of the county's EMS service.

In recent years, there were four county commissioners who also worked for the county, but three have either left the commission or retired from their county jobs. Four Washington County commissioners work for the county they govern - Greg Matherly and Ronnie Slagle work for the Washington County Sheriff's Department.

Eddie Haren works in the county zoning department, and Roy McLain is a teacher in the county school system. While some people may think it a conflict to vote on matters that directly concern their own paycheck, Haren says he's resolved the issue for himself.

"My only loyalty is to the people who voted for me," he said. Haren, who started working for the county nine years before being elected as a commissioner, says he doesn't even discuss votes with his boss, Zoning Administrator Mike Rutherford. The school of thought that daily county business and politics are two separate entities is how he avoids a conflict, he said. Haren voted against a budget that would have given him a raise. "I didn't agree with the budget," he said.

"I try to be as fair as I can. I'll evaluate the situation and talk to people in the district to see what they feel," he said. Still, Haren and other commissioners who work for the county read and sign a declaration before a vote they have direct interest in as employees, swearing that they are voting their conscience and not for their own interest.

When it comes to personnel, local governments in Tennessee are behind the times, say some consultants. Tennessee didn't require all local governments to have even the most basic personnel policies - required to comply with federal and state laws - until 1997, Hardy said.

Cities have an easier time implementing policy across all sections of their governments because they have a far more centralized authority, Hardy said, generally in the form of a board of mayor and aldermen or a city council.

But a centralized human resource department and uniform pay scale that private industries and some cities take for granted are difficult to establish in most Tennessee counties. Washington County commissioners struggled in 2000 with a proposal to hire a human resources director for the county.

The post was created, but it was not funded when commissioners realized that compliance with the office's guidelines would be wholly voluntary on the part of officeholders. Both Hawkins and Sullivan counties have uniform pay scales in place, but Sullivan officials are so far the only group to stick to a countywide schedule with any sort of regularity. Staff writers Jeff Bobo, Chelsea Shoun and JoEllen Weedman contributed to this report.

Copyright 2001 Kingsport Times-News, December 1, 2001

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