Public Payroll, Family Affairs: Aldermen Keep It Relative
Four of the 12 Chicago aldermen running in the April 17 runoff employ relatives or other loved ones on their publicly funded ward staffs, costing taxpayers more than $400,000 a year. While laws in other major cities prohibit this practice, Chicago politicians say there's nothing wrong with hiring people they trust and think their relatives deserve the same chance as other applicants.
"That's just something that people always have done," said Ald. Madeline L. Haithcock, who's fighting challenger Bob Fioretti to hang on to her 2nd Ward seat. "Almost everybody has a relative on their staff. I have a daughter and have my husband that is watching my back on the West Side."
Haithcock is not alone, according to a six-month investigation by creatingcommunityconnections.org, and published jointly with The Beachwood Reporter.
Ald. Dorothy J. Tillman, locked in a fierce battle with two-time opponent Pat Dowell, employs her daughter Ebony T. Tillman. Ald. Rey Colón, facing a tough challenge from former Ald. Vilma Colom, hired his fiancé Martha Ramos last year. And Ald. Bernard L. Stone, who faces opponent Naisy Dolar in the 50th Ward, has employed his daughter Ilana Feketitsch for 12 years.
Two other aldermen - Arenda Troutman in the 20th Ward and Emma M. Mitts in the 37th Ward - also employ relatives. Mitts easily won another four-year term in the Feb. 27 election. Troutman lost to Willie B. Cochran, seven weeks after federal officials charged her with bribery in connection with a land deal near her South Side ward. The outgoing alderman, appointed to office by Mayor Richard M. Daley in 1991, pays her sister, Faye E. Troutman, $67,008 a year. Both the alderman and her sister declined to discuss the issue.
Haithcock, who was appointed alderman by Mayor Daley in 1993, said she hired her husband, Gordon E. Haithcock, after he worked 41 years as a manager for the U.S. Postal Service. He's classified as an "assistant to the alderman" in city payroll records and earns $67,008 a year.
Haithcock's daughter, Tanya D. Haithcock, earns $47,388 as a staff assistant. She works with the schools and helps with anything else that needs to be done, the alderman said. Haithcock added, "She doesn't work completely all the time because she has MS."
Combined with the alderman's $98,125 annual salary, the Haithcock family is on track to gross $212,521 in taxpayer money this year. Gordon Haithcock declined to talk about his employment; repeated attempts to reach Tanya Haithcock were unsuccessful.
Fioretti, Haithcock's opponent, says others are capable of working on an alderman's staff. Elected officials putting their relatives on the public creates a "lazy" staff that is "only in it for their own pockets."
"I know when I'm the alderman I'm not going to have family members on my staff," said Fioretti, who won the most number of votes in the Feb. 27 election - 28 percent compared to the alderman's 21 percent.
Other aldermen offer no apologies for hiring their loved ones.
"So I'm guilty of nepotism, how about that?" said Stone, one of the longest-serving aldermen on the 50-member Chicago City Council.
His opponent, however, doesn't view this hiring practice in the same way. Dolar says an alderman's personal staff should be regulated like any other city office, where government workers and elected officials are banned from hiring their family members. Since the mid-1980s, the city's ethics ordinance has prohibited aldermen from employing relatives on their committee staffs, but no such ban exists for their ward offices.
"It is the alderman's responsibility that we hire the most qualified people and reflect the diversity of the neighborhood," Dolar said.
Stone employs his daughter, Ilana Feketitsch, as his chief of staff. Feketitsch said her 12 years of working for her father, who's been in office since 1973, makes her qualified for the position, which earns her $63,804 annually.
Tillman, who was appointed 3rd Ward alderman by then-Mayor Harold Washington in 1983, employs her daughter Ebony at a yearly rate of $52,320. Ebony Tillman, listed as an "assistant to the alderman" in city payroll records, did not respond to repeated requests for interviews, and her mother, Ald. Tillman, declined to discuss the matter.
This is not the first time the alderman has been in the news for hiring family members. The Lakefront Outlook, a weekly newspaper on the South Side, reported last year that Tillman was involved with patronage dealings involving the non-profit Harold Washington Cultural Center. The paper reported that another daughter, Jimalita Tillman, works as executive director of the organization that manages the cultural center, while son Bemaji serves on the group's board of directors.
Dowell, Tillman's runoff opponent, pledges not to hire any of her relatives if elected. She calls the practice "inappropriate" and, along with Ald.-elect Sandi Jackson in the 7th Ward, has signed an ethics statement Dowell said could reduce the hiring of relatives.
Over on the West Side in the 35th Ward, Ald. Colón pays his fiancé, Martha Ramos, $73,968 to be his chief of staff. Before being elected four years ago, Colón believed hiring relatives created a "layer of unprofessionalism," but now that he's an alderman Colón said he needs a staff he can trust.
"First, I was outside throwing stones; now I'm inside the house," he said.
Challenger Colom, who held the seat from 1995 to 2003, thinks anyone living with an alderman - including domestic partners and children - should not be hired. Colom said she once employed her former sister-in-law on her ward staff.
"I feel that there are many people in the community and outside of the community that have the skills and talents necessary to accomplish the goals of an alderman's office," Colom said. "If they work for the city, I don't have a problem with that, but to work in the alderman's office . . . (that) just doesn't sit well with people."
She's not the only one uncomfortable about aldermen hiring their relatives.
"I've never employed anybody in my family in my staff nor do I intend on doing that," said Ald. Toni Preckwinkle of the 4th Ward.
Ald. Ariel E. Reboyras of the 30th Ward says he doesn't hire his relatives because he believes it would raise questions with his constituents.
"It's very much frowned upon," Reboyras said. "If you want to be a one-termer, sure, go ahead. But you shouldn't do it because it is the taxpayers' money."
It's up to voters whether the practice continues, said Ald. Joe Moore of the 49th Ward. He thinks if voters are satisfied with the services they receive from their alderman, then they may look the other way.
"It should be left to the voters to decide whether that's the best use of their tax dollars," he said.
That doesn't sit well with public watchdog groups and some political scientists. They warn such hiring practices cause voters to become disillusioned, leading them to stop trusting officials and participating in their government.
"Nepotism causes people to be alienated from the political process," said Dick Simpson, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and an alderman from 1971 to 1979.
Jay Stewart, executive director of the Better Government Association, agrees but notes, "It may be stinky, lousy, but not illegal. If it's not illegal, [the aldermen] will do it."
"These positions should be posted," Stewart said. "They should be held for 'x' amount of time and available before (they're) just given out to a family member."
But ideally, alderman should ban themselves from hiring relatives, Stewart says.
That's not how Ald. Richard F. Mell sees it. Mell, who chairs the Chicago City Council's Committee on Committees, Rules and Ethics, which monitors the behavior of the aldermen, says he doesn't employ any relatives on his ward staff. But he believes each of the 50 council members should be able to decide whether to hire family members.
"If they do it, they obviously raise the question of 'Are there other people who are in fact more deserving?'" said the 33rd Ward alderman. "Some people believe that because an alderman's staff is so integral to their lives that sometimes a relative would work harder than some other people."
Cindi Canary, director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, believes the hiring process should be more transparent, with qualifications being emphasized over personal connections.
"It's ultimately a question of appearances," she said. "Even though I'm sure there are circumstances or exceptions to rules . . . it always needs to be made public."
In the private sector, hiring family members can be viewed as a conflict of interest, said Dow Scott, a professor at Loyola University Chicago's Graduate School of Business.
"The whole family connection can be real problematic and an issue that firms, even family-owned firms, put a lot of thought into," Scott said. "How can you keep talented people [on staff if they] know that son or daughter is going to be the president or vice president and people don't really have the same opportunities they might at a firm that didn't have a family leadership?"
Many companies have rules that prohibit family members from working in positions where one would report directly to the other, he added. "It's just not seen as good business."
Defenders of this practice, however, say it can work out well for taxpayers because family members feel pressure to do their jobs better.
"I think I worked harder than the other people just because that was my father and he wanted to make sure that I knew everything that was going on with this job," said Ald. Darcel A. Beavers of the 7th Ward. "And that [way], people couldn't say anything - because I was qualified for this job."
Beavers, the daughter of Cook County Commissioner William Beavers, started her political career 22 years ago working in her father's 7th Ward office. When William Beavers left his aldermanic post late last year, Mayor Daley selected Darcel Beavers to succeed him. She lost that post in the Feb. 27 municipal elections to Sandi Jackson, who will take over in May.
"I think people who talk about nepotism should look in the mirror and see if they've benefited from nepotism before they start talking," Darcel Beavers said.
There's no question, the outgoing alderman says, that she's qualified given her more than two decades of experience.
Bettye R. Pulphus feels the same way. Since 2003, Pulphus, who earns $63,804, has worked as an "assistant to the alderman" in her sister's West Side ward office. Why is she qualified? She points to her master's degree in social services from the University of Chicago and her 20 years of work as a block club president and precinct captain.
"People would rather look at the negatives rather than the positives," said Pulphus, who's planning to leave Ald. Mitts' office and has applied for civil service jobs with the city of Chicago and state of Illinois. "Rather than looking at it being challenging to work for a relative, they look at it as 'You've got it good.'"
In fact, Pulphus believes she's being penalized for having worked for her sister, saying it's taking her longer than expected to land another government job.
Ramos, Ald. Colón's chief of staff and fiancé, said her years of working for the Chicago Park District, where she met Colón, helped prepare her for her current job. Ramos said she was hired during a time when Colón needed a top deputy he didn't have to spend a lot of time training.
"You have a good day if you get home by 10 o'clock at night," Ramos said. "I came into the picture because I could just come in and start without skipping a heartbeat."
Paul Green, a professor of political science at Roosevelt University, has no problem with aldermen hiring their relatives as long as a person's qualifications are considered in the decision. Like Ald. Darcel Beavers, Green believes that relatives may be held to an even higher standard.
"They should not be discounted simply because they have the same last name," Green said. "It's the quality of the person being appointed, not anything else that should be the key factor."
Adam Bellow, author of In Praise of Nepotism: A Natural History, said the practice of public officials hiring their relatives is nothing new to politics and is deeply rooted in American history.
"Just like with any other profession in which people are born into, politics has the same character," said Bellow, the son of Saul Bellow, in an interview. "What goes on in Chicago is nothing new or special. It's just that elsewhere it's been driven underground."
The fact that something has been going on for so long doesn't make it right, said Judy Nadler, former mayor of Santa Clara, Calif., and senior fellow in government ethics at Santa Clara University.
"Just because something has been done for a long time, or there's a history of it, it doesn't mean that it's a good practice," Nadler said. "When people bring that up to me as an excuse, I like to say 'Well, we try not to repeat our mistakes.'"
Jonathan Binder, James Jaworski, Rosalie Marquez, Jessica Pearce and Lisa Pietrzak contributed to this investigation. To contact the primary reporters, send an e-mail to email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org, or call (312) 344-8907.
Posted on April 12, 2007
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