Ky. legislature should curb nepotism in local governments

Let's say you learn that one of your employees has stolen money from another's purse. Or, that another is giving away company-owned construction materials in return for favors. Or, even that an employee breaks into his own office and steals money to feed a habit.

Simple enough, right? The offenders have to go.

The picture becomes murkier if those larcenous employees are family members.

And even more messy if you all work in government, drawing taxpayer-funded salaries.

Hard to believe but all these scenarios have played out in Kentucky, according to a troubling report on nepotism in county government by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Research.

There are no uniform rules on hiring relatives in Kentucky's 120 counties, and no one keeps track of nepotism.

While some counties, including Fayette, ban public officials from hiring or supervising close relatives, KyCIR's James McNair found that in 75 of Kentucky's 120 counties hiring relatives is more or less accepted practice. One of them is Rowan County where County Clerk Kim Davis worked under her mother during the decades she served as county clerk. When Davis herself took over the job in January she expanded the family business to include her 21-year-old son Nathan as an assistant clerk.

While Davis is certainly the best-known of the county officials practising nepotism, she is by no means alone. KyCIR lists clerks who employ their sisters, sons, daughters, wives, husbands, brothers and first cousins. Judge- executives, circuit court clerks, county attorneys, jailers, sheriffs and magistrates also contribute to the full-family-employment-at-taxpayer-expense trend in Kentucky, some even hiring in-laws.

It's common that these jobs are never advertised, that no one else is interviewed or considered for the position.

Why doesn't someone do something about this, you might ask. As McNair reports, a reform-minded state legislature walked up to it in 1994. While the law that resulted does require cities and counties to have nepotism policies, that's all it said. As a result, there's a crazy-quilt of rules: some policies say it's banned, some say it's allowed, others limit it to only one relative per elected official.

By all accounts and the evidence of low voter turnout, citizens have become jaded about elected officials. This report offers an opportunity for legislators in the upcoming session to restore some faith by ending this widespread nepotism.

One way family dynasties maintain control over local offices is the widespread practice of including elected officials' names in addition to their offices on a wide range of documents and mailings. This often amounts to free advertising for a person who keeps his or her job by winning votes.

Since Gov.-elect Matt Bevin and others are eager to remove clerks' names from marriage licenses, they should broaden their reforms to remove office-holder names from as many public documents as possible. If we don't need the clerk's name on a marriage license, we certainly don't need politicians' names on business forms or gas pumps. It's time to cut back this taxpayer-subsidized free advertising.

The Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting report on nepotism in county government can be found at: kycir.org/2015/11/12/in-hiring-county-officials-can-and-do-turn-to-relatives.