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March 28, 2006

Nepotism in City Hall: Error or Oversight?

Chris Patterson

Boiling it down, there are two very reasonable and sound positions on Frederick Mayor Jeff Holtzinger’s hiring of his sister-in-law as project manager.

Position One: Mayor Holtzinger was exercising his right to hire the person he trusts to work closely with him. As this particular position is important to his success, it would make sense that he would hire someone qualified to do the job well. It also makes sense that he would hire someone he feels he can work well with right out of the gate. No getting used to each other. They know each other and can get a running start.

Additionally, in support of the mayor’s decision, we have to ask: where is the boundary of “family?” Does it include in-laws? Cousins? Second cousins? The latter is related by blood but in-laws are by marriage. And what about cousins-in-law? Is there even such a thing?

The party in question – Donna Folden – is married to the brother of the mayor's wife. As has been mentioned by the mayor on the matter, should Ms. Folden divorce or her husband pass away, there would be no familial tie and therefore no nepotism issue anymore.

Without some clarification on this matter alone, the mayor can rightfully claim the rules regarding hiring family members are too vague. As an attorney, Mr. Holtzinger knows well how vague laws are frequently deemed unenforceable by higher courts.

And yet, as an attorney, Mr. Holtzinger also should know about ethics and should know to be careful in hiring family. He should know that it isn’t always about whether or not you actually violate a law or regulation. Giving the appearance of doing so, walking the fine line between violating and not violating the law, is just as dangerous a precipice along which to walk. It doesn’t take a politically seasoned veteran – of which Mr. Holtzinger is not – to figure that out.

He also didn’t need state Del. Rick Weldon to tell him that he should have walked carefully here.

But let’s consider the other side of this issue a moment.

Position Two is that hiring a family member for this job was nepotism and unethical. This is a significant point because the taxpayers want and deserve to know that hiring in City Hall is fair; but, more importantly, they have the right to know that the best person for a job actually got the job. When a family member is hired, everyone wonders.

According to the city’s ethics regulations, officials cannot “cause or advocate a member of their family to be hired, employed, promoted, transferred or advanced to any regular full or regular part-time paid employment of the city. No city official or employee shall participate in an action relating to the discipline of a member of the city official’s or employee’s family.”

I’m betting, but I do not know, that members of the same family are probably not allowed to work in a direct reporting relationship at all. They might not even normally be permitted to work in the same unit. In most companies of my experience, that is so.

So what in the world was Human Resources Director Jeanne Rockenbaugh doing sitting on her hands while this hire was going on?

Here was her response to an inquiry by The Gazette, published March 23: ‘‘We have a lot of policies and unfortunately I don’t have them all memorized. The mayor cannot possibly know all the details of every policy. He’s been in office less than two months.”

She said she should have pointed out to the mayor that city policy has been to review “direct-reporting family members” with the Board of Alderman. She said it was an oversight “and nothing more.”

You could argue that forgetting to feed your children is an oversight, too, but it does not make the oversight any less grievous. And as for giving the mayor an out by saying he has only been there two months…it was quite generous of her to do so. Surely that magnanimity had nothing to do with the fact that Mr. Holtzinger is the one who would dismiss her for this negligence.

So what to do now?

Ms. Folden, the new project manager, is a human being who should be treated with respect. She did nothing wrong. She disclosed her relationship and the screw-up (hiring her without proper consideration of her familial connection with the mayor) was not her fault. She may even be well qualified, perhaps more qualified than the other candidates. Without a publicly reported evaluation of the process and the candidates, we may never know that for certain.

But, again, what to do now? Does the city dismiss her and apologize for the mistake? Do they go back to other candidates and try again?

I think not.

In an ideal world, Ms. Folden would not have a direct reporting relationship with the mayor. The Ethics Commission may review the situation and suggest the reporting relationship should change and the mayor may do it.

But any change in that design now would be contrived and only for public view. She would inevitably be working primarily with the mayor and no shuffling around on paper would change that. So leave it be.

Let’s face it. If Ms. Folden isn’t doing well or she is a bother, the word will get out. Trickles of complaints will filter to the public ear via the press. There is no doubt of that. Someone will talk.

And if that happens, the mayor again will be called to answer for the hire and this turmoil will begin all over again. There is the potential that this matter will again rise up and bite His Honor in the butt from now till the end of his term.

That’s the way mistakes are, especially in public service. No one ever lets you forget.

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