Jane Brunner and Nancy Nadel say no to anti-nepotism ordinance

So earlier this summer, Oakland City Council Ignacio De La Fuente introduced an anti-nepotism ordinance (PDF). It first came to the Finance and Management Committee before recess, and it failed to pass onto Council.

A revised ordinance (PDF) came back to the Finance and Management Committee today. They made a number of minor changes that I think are reasonable, but then stuck on the issue of what relationships people should disclose. The ordinance that De La Fuente is proposing would require applicants for jobs with the City to disclose any relationship – family, romantic, or co-habiting with anyone currently holding a supervisor position within the City of Oakland upon receiving their offer of employment. Nancy Nadel and Jane Brunner wanted to limited the requirement so that applicants would only have to disclose relationships with supervisors within the department that they’re applying for a job in. Ignacio De La Fuente wouldn’t budge on this point. Jean Quan seemed more on the fence, but ended up voting in favor of the ordinance.

The argument basically went like this:

Ignacio De La Fuente: If I’m applying for a job in, let’s say, Public Works. Should I not disclose that my father is the fire chief or the Deputy City Manager, because that’s a different department or another agency? Doesn’t mean I’m not going to get the job, but it means that I should disclose that as an applicant, that my uncle is the Deputy of, or Director of the Fire Department.

Nancy Nadel: Help me understand why an applicant in Public Works needs to disclose that their uncle is the Fire Chief?

Ignacio De La Fuente: I guess, because, if the Deputy Fire Chief – and I’m just picking an agency – the Deputy Fire Chief knows the Director of Public Works or Libraries, and I’m his nephew or his wife, I guess I would have a better shot at the job, don’t you think?

Nancy Nadel: But how will disclosing that make that any different?

Ignacio De La Fuente: Then I think it will be on the record – you’re disclosing it. So that doesn’t mean you will not get the job, but at least, it will be on record that it is disclosed. And the person is disclosing the fact that they have that potential advantage. I don’t see what’s wrong with disclosing it. Doesn’t necessarily mean we’re going to exclude you. But that means that – you’re applying for a job, and it’s one of the problems that we have. And that’s the issue here. It is the relationships.

And like this:

Ignacio De La Fuente: Are you going to tell me that really honestly we’re going to say the head of one department doesn’t have the influence of another department hiring people?

Nancy Nadel: But disclosure is not going to change that.

Ignacio De La Fuente: I think it’s going to change it, because then it’s no place to hide. Because people will disclose it. I’m not willing to – I can only do so many changes to water it down to nothing, and I’m not going to do that.

Jane Brunner: I just think you’re invading people’s personal life. And there’s a world of privacy. What someone does at home really is their private life. And this government, the past – the national government, has been invading our personal lives. I’m not going to be a part of invading someone’s personal life unless there’s really a need to know. And I’m willing to say there’s a need to know if you’re going into that department and that supervisor’s going to have influence over the person who’s making the decision. But if you’re going to hire a janitor under public works, you do not need to know that that janitor is living with or is dating another aide – another person whose a supervisor in another department..

Ignacio De La Fuente: Or is the son of one of the supervisors

Jane Brunner: I don’t think we need to know. Well, you’re not just doing sons, you’re doing dating relationships. So you’re going deeper than I’ve ever seen. And you’re not doing just husband and wife, you’re not doing just domestic partner, you’re doing dating relationships. I’m just a little uncomfortable, and I’m trying to narrow it to a point where I can get comfortable. So if it’s a supervisor in that department where that person’s gonna work, I think that’s okay. But if it’s any supervisor in the city of 4000 employees, with a dating relationship, I think that’s entering someone’s bedroom.

Jean Quan: In institutions our size, it does appear occasionally that there could be some trading off. Okay. I’ll help your relative if you help mine. There could possibly be that kind of trading off. And if it doesn’t affect the final hiring, I would rather at this point err on the side of a little bit more disclosure. We’ve limited it to only supervisors, so it’s not like “Are you related to the custodian over at Brookdale Park and Rec. It’s “Are you related to another, basically, manager within the system.” And that’s where I’m willing to compromise with him. I am not totally comfortable with how broad it is, but it’s not going to be clean here, we’re gonna have to try to make some compromises, I think.

So…I can understand the reasoning that requiring people to disclose any romantic relationship might be extreme. It’s a point where I could go either way, honestly. I definitely think that a romantic relationship that has escalated to the point of cohabitation should be disclosed – I don’t really understand how anyone could object to that. I mean, that seems to me like it’s obviously as significant a relationship as like, your uncle or cousin or something.

But although dating was referenced a couple of times by the dissenters, it wasn’t the meat of their objection. Brunner and Nadel were insistent that applicants should not have to disclose relationships with supervisors in departments other than the one they want to work in. I just don’t follow. It seems self-evident to me that such relationships could theoretically result in nepotism in hiring practices, and of course, we know for a fact that Deborah Edgerly had relatives working in departments other than her own. Nadel and Brunner said that we should wait for the results of the hiring practices audit so we can see if there any evidence of interdepartmental nepotism within the City currently.

Now, I’m all for basing policy decisions on evidence. But I don’t really see how that argument applies in this case. If one can reasonably anticipate that interdepartmental nepotism could be an issue, and like I said above, it seems clear to me that it could, then why should we wait until it becomes a problem before we make a law addressing it? I just don’t see how asking applicants to disclose their relationships with supervisors within the City is such a violation of privacy as Nadel and Brunner seem to. I mean, the only two times in my life I’ve held jobs with large corporations, I had to fill out on my application if I was related to anyone who did or had ever worked for the same company. It isn’t exactly the bizarre request the seem to be making it out to be.

Anyway, with a 2-2 vote, the ordinance did not move onto the full Council. But that doesn’t mean it won’t. De La Fuente will simply have to introduce it at Council himself and find someone to second it, and they can have the same fight all over again.

21 thoughts on “Jane Brunner and Nancy Nadel say no to anti-nepotism ordinance

  1. JB

    I seem to recall that in 2004 Nadel used city funds to hire her own daughter (then 22 years old and a student at the Goldman School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley) to conduct a study into the viability of in-car video cameras for the Oakland Police Department. Perhaps Nadel’s own Edgerly-like tendencies explain her intransigence here.

  2. John

    I think “Ignacio de la Fuente Wants to Know Who’s In Your Bed” would make a better title for this article.

  3. Max Allstadt

    Transparency and ethics ordinances have to be written to anticipate wrongdoing, not act on past offenses. If people can find a way to cheat, they will. Hence the disappearance of thousands and thousand of critical emails. The city didn’t anticipate emails becoming the main form of communication. Employees realized they could kill their own paper trails. So some of them did. Pretty simple.

    The dating thing seems a bit much to me. It’s too hard to prove anyway. What are we gonna do, get on Facebook and see if the candidate is “In a relationship”? What do we do for “It’s complicated”? Does “In an open relationship” count?

    Another way of solving this problem is to have the preliminary part of the hiring process be blind. No names, ages, genders on the document that HR sees first. Only after the first round do you do interviews. Orchestras started doing blind auditions in the 60s. Many more women were hired. Wine contests started doing blind taste tests, and 2-buck Chuck won a few. Seems like a good way to create fairness, no? Tried and true.

  4. len raphael

    i don’t have a problem with ignacio’s proposal re dating etc., but to me it’s comparable to making a big deal about the cost of junkets/travel. in this instance, the bigger fish would be extending the anti nepotism rules to independent contractors and non profits. but no disagreement on that omission among the council members.

  5. Robert

    Where does it start, where does it end? If I have been freinds with somebody for 10 years is that a problem? Does it only count if you have sex with the person? What about just dinner? To my mind, freinds might create just as big a concern for bias and influence peddling as if you went on a couple of ‘dates’ with somebody.

  6. Ralph

    has nancy never held a real job. this is by far the most common question on just about every application I have seen. now i would agree that dating is a bit extreme.

    to make it palatable you disclose direct relations within the department, and more generally if any family members are employed by the city.

    i think the std apps cover grands, mom, dad, sons, daughters, uncle, aunts, nephews, nieces and domestic partnerships

  7. Max Allstadt

    I remember mentioning my girlfriend as a fill-in at an architecture firm I used to work at. They had a policy against it. Makes sense within departments, just as a best practice.

    But yeah, Len is right, the contractors and non-profits are the elephants in the room.

    Google spreadsheets, continuously updated, for all of our money, wherever it goes… We can do this, and we should.

  8. V Smoothe Post author

    John –

    The disclosure information is provided to the Director of Personnel, not to any of the Councilmembers.

    Len Raphael –

    My understanding is that nepotism in City employment is actually a very large problem. In any case, Ignacio has said repeatedly that he is also in favor of a similar ordinance for contracting, and said at the meeting yesterday that he has asked the City Attorney’s office to draft such legislation.

    Robert & Max –

    The proposed ordinance requests applicants disclose family, romantic relationships, and cohabitants. I could see dropping romantic relationships from the list, but not cohabitants. In any case, the argument at Committee wasn’t over whether or not to include romantic relationships, it was over whether or not people should disclose relationships with someone who is a supervisor in a department other than the one they’re applying – like, if I want a job at the library, and my mom is running CEDA, should I be obligated to disclose that? I think yes. De La Fuente thinks yes. Nancy Nadel and Jane Brunner think no.

  9. Max Allstadt

    I think yes. I think drop everything but cohabitation. I think add a blind pre-process for any hire where you have more than ten interviews.

    A blind pre-process would have kept Edgerly’s daughter from even getting in the door of the police academy. It probably would have kept Valladon’s son out too.

    As long as this is just about disclosure, I think we’re doing OK. If we try to block family members from serving in the OPD or OFD, we’re compromising an important tradition. We can however, ensure they’re not in direct lines of command with eachother. I hope this is already the case.

  10. Chris Kidd

    I have to say I’m in agreeance with the general direction of this discussion. Trying to nail down the cohabitation/dating/relationship stuff is just tricky and I wouldn’t be surprised if it left the city open to lawsuits due to its murky nature. What if you broke up two months before applying? Should that count too? So very many problems.

    I think a much bigger loophole that needs to be sealed up is the nepotism in contracts awarded by the city. That’s a small step away from outright graft. V, I’m glad to hear that this issue is next on the docket for IDLF and Russo. I think the consequences of awarding a contract to an inferior company because of family members could be much more damaging to the city and city services than hooking a single relation up with a job. That being said, they’re both bad. Let’s clean it up!

    p.s. the new edit feature is teh awesome.

  11. Max Allstadt

    Significant others, in my mind, are more a problem of volatility than of corruption. Bringing a breakup into the workplace is potentially an unholy mega-clusterfuck for a manager to contend with. So within departments, or within the same open bullpen, I would definitely ban that too. It may already be named. But it’s not about corruption.

  12. VivekB

    Jean Quan emailed the OPD yahoogroup today, and said that DLF was going to exercise his right to bring it to the full council and she’d second it.

    I may not agree with much of what Jean Quan does, but rock on for actually directly communicating with Oakland residents. I’ve been trying to get Brunner to reply to any of my emails for 18 months now (volunteering to help her for free, mind you), Quan actually puts herself out there.

    Ya gotta admit, that’s pretty cool.

    (BTW, I agree with DLF, this needs to be passed in it’s current form, or perhaps even stronger. No dilution at all. And then we really get pushing on cleaning up city hall)

  13. Californio

    A legal challenge could be effectively mounted against this proposal because of Ignacio’s justification of it, ironically. If the disclosure of such relationships really will not affect hiring, then what is its purpose other than the invasion of privacy?

    To my mind, this is a feel-good amendment concocted out of frustration with Edgerly’s misdeeds. Since disclosure of family relationships would not have affected the hiring of her relatives, the Edgerly scandal would have occurred even if this had been in place at the time.

    As others have pointed out, defining what constitutes a relationship raises serious issues, similar to those related to domestic partners. (What if two male roommates want to have health insurance from an employer. Do they have to have sex to get it?) Imagine the legal complications.

    Better off to let this one die and to work on more substantive issues. It does show that Ignacio’s heart is in the right place, though, unless his intention here is to create another bullet point for his next campaign mailers.

  14. mark

    If this was a normal gov’t and city, I would not care whether or not people disclosed relationships. However, this is not a normal gov’t or city. This is Oakland. In Oakland, our gov’t has a major credibility problem (for good reason). Unless Oakland passes strong rules to protect the taxpayer, nothing will get done, and no one will vote for the new tax package. Based on Jane’s comments, I would say that our council still does not understand the amount of distrust and frustration that our embattled citizens feel.

    This is really not about disclosure. This is about credibility, and the council and mayor need to understand this issue and get passed it by passing strong legislation.

    The city is going to end up like Vallejo unless we start taking serious action. The inmates can no longer run the asylum.

  15. V Smoothe Post author

    Californio –

    Actually, courts have established repeatedly that potential employers have enormous leeway in what they’re entitled to ask in applicants, regardless of perceived relationship to job performance. Other cities all over the State and Country have similar ordinances, and the representative from the City Attorney’s office told the Committee on Tuesday she felt confident the ordinance would withstand any legal challenge.

    I find it bizarre that you would refer to something aimed at combating rampant nepotism in City hiring as anything other than “substantive.” We have an anti-nepotism clause in our Charter already, but it, of course, has no mechanism for enforcement and no teeth. This ordinance would create that. Such measures are absolutely paramount if the citizens of Oakland are to have any faith in City Hall.

    Max –

    Civil service rules actually do dictate something similar to the blind pre-process you’re suggesting. Obviously, people have found a way around it.

  16. Max Allstadt

    If we have an easily circumvented method for blind evaluations, in should be studied and upgraded as part of the reforms.

    People find their way around everything. The more often we update, the better we’ll hold’em back, but it’ll never be perfect.

    Also, why all this focus on miniscule conflicts of interest? We have campaign finance and ethics loopholes that create mammoth conflicts of interest. What a lovely distraction we’ve hit upon!

    Our governance crisis is not going to be solved by deciding whether or not to make me disclose how many metermaids I slept with last year.

    (Zero. The answer is zero.)

  17. V Smoothe Post author

    Max –

    That’s the whole point of doing this. Let me give you an example. When you apply for a city job and meet the basic requirements, then take your exam, the city is supposed to take the top four scorers on the exam and give them to the department for interviewing. If the department then doesn’t think any of those four candidates are suitable, they say so and personnel gives them the next four. Now, imagine a situation where the department rejects all of the top four, then the top eight, then the top twelve, then the top sixteen scorers on the exam, finally telling personnel the only acceptable candidate is the seventeenth place scorer, who, as it turns out, is related to someone in a supervisory position in a different department. You don’t think maybe that would have been useful information?

    In any case, metermaids are not applicable to the ordinance. Only relationships with supervisors are supposed to be disclosed.

  18. Dan Rossi

    The ordinance doesn’t only require disclosure at hiring, it requires all current city employees to disclose these relationships once a year. As a city employee, I have no problem disclosing any relationship I may have with a supervisor, but it’s irrelevant what relationships I have with nonsupervisors.

    The best protection against nepotism (and cronyism and favoritism) in local government has always been to have a strong merit-based civil service hiring system. But it was Ignacio, just a few months ago, who tried to scuttle the “rule of four” that V Smoothe described. He wanted city managers to be able to hire anyone who could pass the exam, not just from the pool of top scorers. A born again reformer, just like John McCain.

  19. Chris Kidd

    Maybe another add-on to this solution would be yearly competency tests for supervisors/higher ups in the fields in which they are working. If we’re truly striving for a civil service system based on meritocracy, we should constantly seek to place the best, most knowledgeable people in the positions in which they’d be most efficacious.

  20. oakland Resident

    Tom Mc Coy of BBI Construction sent out emails protesting the cities proposed council cuts of Public Works, He is upset because his city funded tree program is on the chopping blocks. How many more millions of the cities budget is Nancy going to spend on funding developers?