As tax revenue declined in recent years, the Village of Glendale Heights cut costs by reducing the municipal payroll by almost 20 percent through attrition and early retirements.
Among those staying put: A sizable chunk of Village President Linda Jackson’s family. Jackson’s daughter, two sons and daughter-in-law all are employed by the DuPage County community, collectively drawing almost $240,000 in pay. Two of her grandsons also worked seasonal jobs last year. Another relative previously worked for the town.
Jackson, who has been president (a title basically synonymous with “mayor”) since 1999 and served as a village trustee for eight years prior, said she never ordered anyone to hire her family members, and played no other role in their municipal employment.
“I have never ever said you need to hire this one or that one,” the 66-year-old Jackson said. All of the village’s almost 200 full- and part-time workers are hired based on merit, she said. What’s more, Jackson said she didn’t intervene when another relative was fired more than a decade ago.
Jackson added, “When you talk about nepotism, should my kids be punished or have it held against them because I am mayor?”
The dictionary defines nepotism as “patronage bestowed or favoritism shown on the basis of family relationship, as in business and politics.”
But the word is sometimes used more generically, in any instance in which relatives follow family into employment at the same place.
We found it’s not just an issue with City of Chicago or Cook County government – it’s common in the suburbs, though some municipalities ban it.
Bartlett’s municipal government, for instance, adopted a measure in 2013 prohibiting the hiring of relatives of elected officials or municipal officers, Bartlett Village Administrator Valerie Salmons told us.
In Glendale Heights, there’s no such prohibition and no intention to create one, officials said.
Jackson’s relatives hold municipal positions varying from groundskeeper to assistant to the director of the parks department, with annual salaries ranging from more than $41,000 to more than $82,000. The four full-timers could also receive taxpayer-subsidized pensions down the road. The seasonal jobs held by Jackson’s grandchildren were at the village’s golf course. They were each paid $3,300.
“I don’t think it is unique to Glendale Heights by any means, but that doesn’t make it right,” said Charles Wheeler, referring to family hiring. Wheeler is a former Glendale Heights trustee who ran unsuccessfully against Jackson for village president in 2001. Wheeler has since relocated to McHenry County where he serves on the McHenry County Board.
Like political patronage, nepotism is frowned upon by reformers because connections often trump qualifications, meaning taxpayers might not get the best bang for their buck and applicants might not get a fair shot at a job.
Simply put, “it’s unfair to the public,” said Chicago anti-patronage attorney Michael Shakman,
While Glendale Heights gives hiring preference to residents, every job candidate must go through testing and a “stringent” process to make certain they’re qualified, Village Administrator Raquel Becerra said.
Becerra said that when she took her position with the village in 2007, she retooled hiring rules to make sure candidates for even low-level jobs are put through a rigorous evaluation. At least one of Jackson’s sons and her daughter were hired prior to that time, according to records provided by the village.
“I’m extremely proud of our hiring practices,” said Becerra, who succeeded her mother as village administrator.
The Jackson family members currently represent an aggregate annual payroll of about $240,000, according to figures the village provided to the Better Government Association. All of Jackson’s children began work as entry-level employees, Jackson said. They could not be reached for comment.
As a part-time official, Jackson is paid $9,000 a year for her dual roles as village president and village liquor commissioner, she said.
Although she was publicly criticized during her 2013 re-election campaign for the village’s hiring of her family members, Jackson beat two rival candidates by winning almost 54 percent of the vote, records show. The town has roughly 34,000 residents.
‘Rome wasn’t built in a day’
Another community with a history of family hiring is the Village of Summit, where Mayor Joe Strzelczyk once tapped nephew Chet Strzelczyk to serve as village administrator – a position the nephew held until this past summer when it came to light he gave himself an apparently unauthorized interest-free loan with taxpayer money.
When Chet Strzelczyk resigned under pressure, one of the top officials in the southwest suburb’s municipal government – Trustee Marvel Parker – pledged that reforms suggested by the BGA’s policy unit, including an anti-nepotism policy, “are being reviewed and a timeline will be set to implement new strategies that promote better government.”
Since then, we’ve learned Parker interviewed a number of job candidates for an open clerical/bookkeeping position with the village – and among the candidates she vetted was her niece.
The mayor ended up hiring the niece for the $27,500-a-year job.
While Parker told us her niece was the best candidate for the job, she said the mayor had the ultimate decision over who to bring on board.
“I interviewed them, filled over the checklist . . . then I recused myself,” Parker said. “I evaluated each person based on the answers they gave.”
Parker said her niece was passed over twice for other Summit municipal jobs, and “based on her experience and qualifications she was the most qualified” for the position she was just hired into.
“It had nothing to do with her being related to me, that’s what nepotism is,” Parker said. “Nepotism, the example would be Chet who was not interviewed, the job was not posted . . . his resume did not show he had any management experience or college . . . nepotism is you’re hired specifically because you’re related to someone and not qualified . . . this is not an example of that.”
Chet Strzelczyk did not return calls, and the mayor declined to comment.
Regardless was it proper for Parker to interview a relative?
Parker said she was objective throughout the process.
Ok, how’s that anti-nepotism policy coming along?
Nothing’s on the books yet, Parker said, but “Rome wasn’t built in a day.”
‘Just like everyone else’
Meanwhile, Calumet City’s municipal government recently hired the son of a top municipal attorney, and the nephew of an alderman. Including those new hires, the BGA identified a total of eight people on the south suburb’s payroll who are related to local government officials.
The most notable is the son of Mayor Michelle Markiewicz Qualkinbush. Paul Freyman was hired in 2009, after Qualkinbush was in office, and is now paid $70,450 a year as a public works foreman.
Calumet City doesn’t have a policy on nepotism.
Other interesting hires include:
- Alex Gianopolus: A $41,662-a-year “helper,” or laborer in the public works department. His father is Dennis Gianopolus, the suburb’s $240,000-a-year attorney. The younger Gianopolus started Nov. 19.
- Bob Manousopoulos: The nephew of Ald. Nick Manousopoulos is paid $42,078 a year as a public works laborer. His first day was in September.
In all, Ald. Manousopoulos has four relatives on the payroll, though he tells the BGA he had no role in their hiring, nor did they receive special treatment. “They applied for the jobs, and went through the procedure just like everyone else,” he says.
This column – a regular feature called The Public Eye, appearing on the Chicago Sun-Times web site – was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Brett Chase, Andrew Schroedter, Robert Herguth and Patrick Rehkamp. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (312) 821-9033.
Image credit: Photo illustration/BGA (Original artwork by Amos Doolittle, courtesy of U.S. Library of Congress)