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Colusa to dial back nepotism practices

After a long history of nepotism in Colusa government, the City Council has amended its employment policies to prevent those in top positions from directly hiring their relatives, supervising their relatives, promoting their relatives, or starting their relatives at the higher end of the salary schedule, all of which have notably occurred in most city departments in recent years.

The city will continue to allow the employment of relatives, but only with City Council approval, according to City Attorney Ryan Jones, who drafted three policy amendments that deal with hiring, employment of relatives, and compensation.

The new policy, adopted 5-0 by the Council on Aug. 4, would also block those in top positions from participating in personnel decisions, such as performance evaluations and promotions.

What it does not do is affect the current employees or relationships that have subjected the city to accusations that City Hall is a hostile workplace.

“I like the direction that we’re going,” said Councilman Greg Ponciano, who thought the policy didn’t do enough. “This came about because we had some conflicts. This looks like it might solve future potential conflicts, but it does not deal with the current conflicts we have now.”

Nepotism is a form of discrimination in which family members are hired for reasons that do not necessarily have anything to do with their experience, knowledge, or skills, as was a longtime practice at the Colusa Fire Department. While the hiring of relatives or friends (cronyism) is not illegal, they can create conflicts in the workplace, especially if preferential treatment is given or perceived to be given to relatives and friends over other employees.

Nepotism can be legally troublesome in superior-subordinate positions, especially if other employees feel they can’t or don’t receive the same treatment, compensation, or opportunities for advancement, officials said.

Colusa’s new employee policy came about after the abrupt resignation of the City’s code enforcement technician in April, who said favoritism runs deep – particularly at City Hall – after relatives of the two highest paid administrators, the city manager and finance director, were hired in 2019 at an advanced level of compensation (Step 3).

The employee, in a resignation letter sent to this newspaper on April 30, also said that when City Hall was closed as a result of COVID-19, relatives of department heads were given other preferential treatment, such as allowing them to leave early when work was slow or allowed to not come in at all, likely “at taxpayers’ expense,” although the allegation was not confirmed.

The city’s new policy, which went into effect immediately, would still allow for the employment of relatives in the future, with council approval, but it does not allow for supervisor-subordinate relationships at all.

The policy amendments also now require City Council approval to hire any employee, relative or otherwise, at Step 3 on the salary range or above, and adds clear definitions of what relationships count as relatives, and what constitutes a supervisor-subordinate relationship.

Relatives include any connection of individuals by blood, marriage, adoption, or domestic relationship, the policy states. Supervisor-subordinate relationships are any in which one employee has the authority to direct or supervisor the duties and responsibilities of the other.

Jones said the policy amendments make significant changes in the way relatives can be hired in order to avoid discrimination in employment.

“One is that we are encouraging panel interviews for hiring,” Jones said. “In that panel, we will want to (include) non-city employees for best practices.”

However, Jones said the new policy is only prospective going forward and would not affect the employment of current staffers who are related to top officials. The policy would, however, prevent current bosses from being involved in performance evaluations, transfers, and personnel decisions (promotions) of their relatives.

Jones said he would continue to look at the current situation in which employees are under the direct supervision of their relatives, which Ponciano said opens the city to the greatest liability.

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