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December 09, 2016
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Nepotism in county government; visitors association in the crosshairs

The request for proposals for organizations interested in running the tourism promotion business in Sullivan County, which went out on August 31, seemed to be an attempt to disqualify the Sullivan County Visitors Association (SCVA), the organization that has been doing the job for the past decade. The RFP said that “no more than one member of the nuclear family unit” could work for the company that wins the contract.

Roberta Byron-Lockwood is the president and CEO of SCVA, while her husband, Herb Clark, is the vice president. On September 5, the RFP was amended to say that the “one member of the nuclear family unit” was “encouraged” but not mandatory.

Interestingly, the next day at the government center, the county legislature had a lengthy discussion about whether or not the county should have a policy regarding nepotism that would cover county employees and contracting agencies.

Lawmaker Gene Benson, who has been very critical of SCVA, came out firmly against the idea of adopting a policy. He said, “Most of the highway departments and water and sewer departments in this county would not have a full compliment of staff if they couldn’t hire relatives.”

Lawmaker Kathy LaBuda agreed, saying, “You cannot compare our county to Orange County because our workforce is limited. An executive order in Orange County dating to 1983 says, “No one in the immediate family of anyone employed by Orange County government shall hold a position of employment in direct line of supervision as his or her relation.”

Lawmaker Jonathan Rouis said, “Whether it’s an honor or a curse, I work in a family business [the accounting firm Rouis and Company LLP] and it works well, and I’m glad that I do, and I hope that it continues to flourish. So we’ve got to be careful of the message we’re sending. Our county is made up of a lot of good family businesses that work very well together and that are very productive.”

Lawmaker Cindy Gieger, however, said the legislature should consider adopting a policy because constituents have raised concerns about the issue. She asked the question of whether in a single department, such as family services or the department of public works, “Do you really want a husband, a wife and a daughter-in-law in the same department? I think that creates some problems.”

Personnel officer Carolyn Hill said that because many county employees are covered by civil service regulations, there are restrictions as to the limits the legislature could impose on employees. She said, for example, if an employee has the qualifications for a certain position, the employee could not be blocked from consideration simply because a relative might work in the same department.

She added, however, that the New York State Comptroller had a model code of ethics that prohibits a supervisor from “participating in the hiring, firing or disciplining of a relative or supervising a relative.”

Facebook and bullying

The issue arose because Lynda Levine, the county director of human resources, said she was working on an update of the employee handbook. It was initially created in 2005 and was updated in 2007, but it was never formally adopted by the county.

Beyond the issue of nepotism, Levine asked the legislature if they were interested in developing a policy regarding Facebook and other social media to guard against the reputation of the county being harmed should an employee post something negative.

Benson asked if she was referring to county computers or home computers. She answered “both,” and said the legislature could formulate a policy regarding social media to protect the county’s reputation should it choose to do so.

Also, she asked if the legislature wanted to develop a policy regarding bullying, which would cover everyone, unlike the policy regarding harassment, which only covers protected classes, such as minorities.

Sandy Shaddock, a union representative for Teamsters Local 445, which includes hundreds of county employees, said, “The bullying throughout this county is rampant; it is definitely a problem. At least 20% to 30% of my calls get diverted to Carolyn Hill as a hostile work environment issue because there is nothing in the contract that deals with bullying.”

The legislature took no action on any of the issues raised.