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The issue of nepotism, and its potential ramifications for county personnel, was hotly debated during Lancaster County Council’s Sept. 23 meeting.
The discussion began after a request from Councilman Bob Bundy to look at possibly amending the county’s personnel policy in an effort to place stricter regulations on nepotism.
“Mr. Bundy wanted to do something a little more stringent,” said County Administrator Steve Willis.
In an effort to find out potential options, Willis first examined the county’s current personnel policy regarding the issue. The policy, which mirrors state law, states that a public official or employee cannot employ, appoint or promote a family member to an office or position that person supervises or manages.
Willis then compared Lancaster County’s policy to several other counties in the state and found only one that was stricter, that of Charleston County which details specific relationships that would be in violation.
“Council could potentially adopt something stricter, but it would be prospective in that it only applies to new hires,” Willis said.
“If current employees are already married, they would be grandfathered in. But you couldn’t have two employees get married in the future, if something like this was approved,” he said. “If we did change something, it would not affect the employees we already have.”
Bundy said the issue has been a growing concern for him.
“This is a concern I had on a couple different levels. It isn’t retroactive, but it puts us above board in the future so there isn’t any opportunity for favoritism one way or another,” Bundy said.
Councilman Larry Honeycutt asked how bad the problem has become in Lancaster County.
“Is it out of hand or something people have just complained about?,” Honeycutt asked. “I seldom hear anything about it. I don’t hear that. So where is the problem and how does it exist?”
Though it is a concern, Willis assured Honeycutt that the county is following state law.
“We remain in compliance with current policy and state law. But if we’re looking at the stricter Charleston policy, we don’t comply with that,” Willis said.
In contrast to Honeycutt’s comments, Councilman Jack Estridge said the issue of nepotism has been an ongoing concern from some of his constituents.
“A year ago, I was hearing complaints about a department hiring individuals who are immediate family. It caused a pretty good stir and a lot of people were complaining about it,” Estridge said. “Y’all know what I’m talking about. We do have instances where it does happen and we need strict guidelines.”
Listening to Estridge’s concerns, Honeycutt addressed a situation he witnessed in 2012.
“Last year there was an opening in a department. There were 12 applications and three were left to be considered. The one who was chosen happened to be the husband of an employee in that department,” Honeycutt said. “To me this is nepotism in the true form, but we said nothing, except that we didn’t like it.”
McGriff clarified the issue, without detailing the specifics of the situation or the employees involved.
“To be clear about that, we couldn’t do anything because an elected person made those hiring practices,” McGriff said.
Despite his objection to nepotism creeping into county departments, Honeycutt cautioned against making the personnel policy too strict.
“I don’t want it to be so stringent that we can’t hire second cousins and on down the line,” he said.
Bundy assured council that the purpose of his proposal was “to make government run smoother.”
Honeycutt and Bundy then went back and forth over the genesis of the proposal.
“There is a husband and wife working at EMS on different shifts in different areas. I don’t recall in my seven years on council hearing one problem created by that,” Honeycutt said.
“We are not just talking about EMS with this,” Bundy said.
“But I know that’s where it originated,” Honeycutt said.
Council then unanimously approved sending the idea for a stricter personnel policy to the county’s management advisory committee for review.
After the vote, Council Chairman Larry McCullough asked if, from now on, department heads could be present if a discussion involves their department.
“I think the head of a department being discussed should be here to be in the audience, so they are in full awareness of what’s being discussed,” McCullough said.
Contact reporter Chris Sardelli at (803) 416-8416