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COLUMN: Nepotism is just par for the course in rural areas

The following article is an opinion piece and represents the views of only the author and not those of AllOnGeorgia.

My inbox is cluttered with dozens of “tips” about local governments every month. The emails almost always originate from a resident or former resident and they almost always echo the same sentiment: too many people from the same family are running the town.

Peggy is upset that Janet’s husband and son are both on the council and Bob is the fire chief, his boys are all firefighters, and his brother is the Mayor. But in a single complaint, Peggy is actually upset about two very different issues. First, nepotism. Second, a lack of people willing and/or able to represent their community.

Let’s start with the first. Nepotism is defined as “the practice among those with power or influence of favoring relatives or friends, especially by giving them jobs.” Synonyms include “favoritism” and “preferential treatment” while Google actually lists “the old boy network” as a similar word. Rural areas are historically know for rampant nepotism because of powerful bloodlines and families dating back generations.

Many cities and counties, in an effort to avoid the perception of impropriety, have nepotism policies on the books. For example, the City of Glennville allows related persons to work for the city so long as one is not the supervisor to the other and so long as they do not share a supervisor. Simply put: different departments. This is an easy way to sideline the appearance of anything unscrupulous.

Where smaller communities often run into problems is by outlining policies that require wrong-buzzercity employees to live in the city limits. Between a desire for the job, the necessary qualifications, and sheer numbers, that can be a very difficult feat. Thus, the mayor just has her son cut the grass for a fee paid from the account his sister oversees. ::Sounds buzzer::

The second balances the conundrum of elected council members and appointed council members, the latter of which means the town is so small that they’re not even holding elections for the positions. Then, a group of people just get together and decide who will serve.

As for the ones who do hold elections, it’s possible for multiple family members to appear on the ballot at the same time. Or in other towns, one family appears frequently throughout the history books, such as the City of Reidsville with the Cheney’s or the Rewis’.

But after much investigation, it seems as though in some cases it just isn’t avoidable.

Take Manassas for example. The population in that town is 96. The current mayor is related to the clerk and her son is a contract employee for the city. The clerk and any employees are approved by council as there is no city manager. Two of the council members are related while another is the son of a previous mayor. The current mayor is the former clerk. This is upsetting to some residents while others seem to turn a blind eye.

But population 96 doesn’t mean 96 people could serve. Let’s say 20 of those are under the age of 18 and don’t qualify to serve. Now you’re at 76. Manassas is an older town, so you have to account for a few elderly folks who aren’t capable, toss in a few convicted felons and you’re looking at less than 50 people who are eligible. After accounting for the people who have no interest in running a local government, it’s possible that there are a mere 25 people who could be the mayor or a council person. That’s a generous estimate.

There are avoidable problems like in the City of Cobbtown, population 355, where the Mayor is a Collins, his brother is a councilman and his other brother is the Fire Chief. While that may not be a problem, having the daughter of one of those Collins’ prepare the audit reports for the city financials is, at the very least, concerning. Same with Claxton. The former city administrator gave contracts to her son’s sign company. Both of these are common but preventable situations.

It begs the question as to whether or not a small town needs its own individual government or if it should be annexed into the county. If there is a small government, what should that government look like? Should there be city employees or should they contract everything out to avoid conflicts of interest? Should a clerk in a town of less than 200 live somewhere other than the town? Could the city contract some services with the county to ensure oversight?

Manassas surely isn’t alone in a consideration like this. Just look at Daisy (pop. 145), Bellville (pop. 123), Register (pop. 173), Rocky Ford (pop. 144), Tarrytown (pop. 88), Santa Claus (pop. 167), or Alston (pop. 160). Not all of these have nepotism, financial, or ethical problems, but certainly they are all susceptible to the possibility of all three.

Perhaps small communities should exchange requiring jobs to be available only to residents for a nepotism policy. Perhaps they should transition to outsourcing.

I’m with all of you complainers. I understand the frustration and the concern. I, too, cringe at the idea of a city being run like a family business, shielding the public from financial documents while demonstrating questionable practices all because “that’s how it’s always been done.” I want municipalities washed of that mentality and replenished with representatives who want to use resources and technology to better their communities.

But if you’re not committed to serving, if you’re not willing to offer an alternative type of representation, “how it’s always been done” will forever be “how it will always be.”

Jessica Szilagyi is a Statewide Contributor for AllOnGeorgia.com. She focuses primarily on state and local politics as well as issues in law enforcement. She has a background in Political Science with a focus in local government and has a Master of Public Administration from the University of Georgia. Jessica is a "Like It Or Not" contributor for Fox5 in Atlanta and has two blogs of her own: The Perspicacious Conservative and "Hair Blowers to Lawn Mowers."

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