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City Charter commission tackles nepotism issue

NEW ULM — The New Ulm City Charter Commission convened to consider potential amendments to the anti-nepotism language in the charter.

New Ulm is a Home Rule Charter City and the charter functions like the city’s constitution. New Ulm’s Charter Commission is expected to meet once a year to review the charter but can meet if the need arrives.

Within the last year, section 24 of the charter has become an issue of concern. This section contains anti-nepotism language that prohibits city employment of immediate family members of elected officials.

The anti-nepotism language has been in the charter since 1973, but few city officials were aware of the language until 2020. Since then, three incidents forced individuals to resign or to not be considered for a position because of a family connection working with the city.

Second Ward City Councilor Lisa Fischer was forced to resign from the council because her son worked for the city. A month later, after Council President Andrea Boettger was elected, her husband was also forced to leave a part-time position with park and recreation. The council also chose not to interview Kathleen Backer for the position of mayor for similar reasons.

City Attorney Roger Hippert said this could create difficulty — if someone is elected with an immediate family member who was a 30-year employee of the city, that long-term employee would be forced to resign. There could also be further legal action taken because firing this employee could be viewed as taking adverse action against an employee based on family relations.

There are other options beyond blanket prohibition. Hippert said the city could define “immediate family” to be less restrictive. Currently, the state definition of immediate family was extremely broad including parents, spouse, sibling, aunt, uncle, child, first cousin, grandparent, step-relatives or in-law relationships.

The Charter Commission could recommend the city removed the anti-nepotism language from the charter or change the language to better clarify it.

City Manager Chris Dalton said he believed the charter could be changed to allow the family of the council and mayor to work for the city as long they were not in a managerial or department head role. Dalton believed the family of an elected official taking an entry-level or part-time position could be fine.

Commission member and City Councilor Les Schultz said that could also be unfair. As an example, he asked what if he had a family member who worked for the city for 20 years and was the next in line for a promotion, but was passed over because they had a parent on the council?

Commissioner William Swan said he grew up outside of Chicago and saw extreme issues of nepotism in the various organizations and government bodies. Swan said he grew up in a town of 1,200 and certain families were in charge of everything. He believed nepotism could cause a power imbalance. He favored a definition of “immediate family” to draw a line.

Commissioner and City Councilor David Christian asked how stringent they wanted to be. He had a daughter who was unable to work six hours a week to teach softball.

Dalton said has seen it both ways, where nepotism was rampant in a town but did not think it was a current problem in New Ulm. He admitted it could be a problem with a future council.

Commissioner Linda Heine believed it came down to what problem they were trying to solve and whether the charter solved it. In this case, it was people having too much influence in the workplace resulting in people being treated unfairly. She believed this charter rule did not adequately prevent unfair treatment in the workplace.

Heine gave the example of close friends. A friend of the councilor might get different treatment, but the anti-nepotism clause does not impact this.

It is also possible for family members to be estranged and having family on the council would not benefit the employee.

There is also the possibility of a couple living together but are not married. The nepotism rule would not prevent favoritism in this scenario.

Heine believed the personnel manager and human resources department could protect against undue influence from family connections. The mayor or city councilor could also recuse themselves in situations that directly impact their family member.

Schultz said a person could theoretically run for office to get a family member fired from a city job.

Heine said that kind of behavior could always occur and at that point, it is up to the voters to remove them from office.

Commissioner Michelle Markgraf suggested the commission consider an Ethics or Disclosure of Conflict of Interest clause in the charter. In reviewing other city charters, Markgraf noticed this was not in New Ulm’s charter. There is nothing that requires the council to declare a conflict of interest if one exists.

Staff will review different options for defining the language and bring them back to next week’s commission meeting.

The Charter Commission also looked into identifying additional city departments in the charter. Currently, the appointment and removal of all city department head positions are subject to the approval of the New Ulm City Council. The City Manager has discretion over other positions.

However, the city charter only recognizes the Board of Health, Public Utilities Commission, Fire Department, Police Commission and Human Rights Commission. This means the council might not have authority over departments not listed, such as Finance, Public Works and IT.

Dalton said the easy remedy for this would be to define the department heads the city council should approve appointing or terminating. He suggested Finance Director, Police Chief, Fire Chief, Utility Director (after a recommendation from PUC) and City Engineer. Dalton believed these five should have council approval as they sign state documents.

Commission President Duane Hansel asked if a draft change could be presented at the next commission meeting. There was a consensus on this issue. City staff agreed to bring a draft to the next meeting.

The next meeting of the Charter Commission will be held, at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, March 17 at the City Hall Council Chamber.

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