Employees for the city of Garden Grove like to say they’re part of the “Garden Grove family,” and that nickname is more or less literal.
At least 117 employees, including a council member and former mayor, in recent years have had at least one relative also working for the city, according to a public records request posted on the city’s website.
The issue has been controversial in Garden Grove, where the Orange County District Attorney is continuing an investigation into allegations of nepotism in the hiring of former mayor Bruce Broadwater’s son Jeremy as a city firefighter.
It was Bruce Broadwater himself who in October made a request, under the California Public Records Act, for all employees, current and former, with a relative working for the city.
In 2013, Voice of OC reported that a number of top officials had relatives who work in the city, including former city manager Matthew Fertal’s three sons and niece.
Broadwater has said that he did not intervene in his son’s hiring, pointing to a change in the city’s nepotism ordinance while he was off the city council.
He said that while he didn’t approve of his son’s hiring, it was not against city policy at the time, and certainly not unique.
“What am I supposed to tell [Jeremy] — that everyone and their brother can hire somebody and he can’t get hired?” Broadwater said at the time.
Broadwater’s Public Records Act request, which is available on the city’s new public records portal, shows that in addition to a number of top officials and department managers, many rank-and-file employees also have had a husband, wife, parent, child, cousin or in-law working for the city.
Councilmember Kris Beard’s two sons and finance director Kingsley Okereke’s two daughters and son have worked summer jobs in the Recreation Department. Community Services Director Kim Huy has a brother-in-law in Public Works. IT Director Charles Kalil has a sister-in-law in Community Development.
One employee, an administrative analyst, has a father, cousin and two brothers in the city, according to the document.
City firefighters, who gave former chief David Barlag a vote-of-no confidence when Jeremy Broadwater was slated for hiring, are certainly not immune.
Police Chief Todd Elgin’s son-in-law, and the brother-in-law of police officer Brian Dalton (the son of former mayor Dalton) are Garden Grove firefighters. Batallion Chief Paul Whitaker’s wife Lucia is a fiscal analyst for the fire department. Two fire captains — Alberto Acosta and Justin Truhill — are brothers-in-law, while firefighters Travis and Shane Mellem are blood brothers.
After a hot 2014 election season that saw and departure of both Bruce Broadwater and Fertal, employees have been especially attentive to public concerns over real or perceived nepotism, said former interim city manager Allan Roeder.
While it’s not uncommon for employees to meet on the job and marry, or for the children of a police officer or firefighter to follow in their parents’ footsteps, Roeder said he thought the number of relatives in Garden Grove is “high.”
“From a best practices standpoint, it’s best to avoid [hiring relatives] wherever possible,” said Roeder, who was the city manager of Costa Mesa for 25 years. “Quite honestly it creates perception, even when the employees are not in the same department…that, because someone is related to someone else, there may be favoritism, or something of that nature.”
From a practical standpoint, Roeder said it also makes it difficult for the city manager to manage employees if they have to worry about placing two relatives in a working relationship.
“You don’t want to put yourself in the position of having to manage workload based on those types of relationships. It’s better not to have to constrain yourself than to try to work things out after the fact,” said Roeder.
Amid the nepotism controversy, former Human Resources Director John D.R. Clark left for a job as Vice President of Southwestern College in Chula Vista. His subordinate, Laura Stover, has since been promoted to director.
In Sept. 2014, while both Broadwater and Fertal were still in office, the city passed a new nepotism ordinance that bans the future employment of relatives of high-ranking employees. It also doesn’t allow related employees to work in the same department or be placed in job where they could one day be supervised by a relative.
Relatives of officials could still apply to work 1,000 hours or less in a part-time position, subject to city manager approval, while part-time employees hired prior to September 2014 are still eligible for promotion to full-time employment.
However, while the new policy ensures the city will have fewer related employees in the future, officials are bound by the previous policy when it comes to those hired before the change, said City manager Scott Stiles, who took in August.
“It appears some people on the list are no longer with the City…and given the City’s current [nepotism] policy…I think the list will continue to be reduced,” Stiles wrote in an email. “Without doing some more research, I can’t report whether this list is more or less than what you might find in other cities the size of Garden Grove.”
“What I can tell you is that we have a responsibility to follow the established nepotism policy set by City Council, and that we strive to follow best practices necessary to maintain the public trust,” Stiles added.
Roeder said the only instance where the issue came up during his nine months at the helm was when an existing part-time employee sought a promotion to a full-time position.
Because of the potential for the person to work under or with a relative, “We denied the promotion,” he said.
Councilman Phat Bui said there isn’t much the city council can do now, given the nepotism policy was put in place after the hiring of most of these employees.
“For now, we just need to make sure the promotion or transferring of employees be done fairly and based on the merit of qualifications,” Bui said. “And I would like to have a process where anyone…would be able to appeal to upper management or the city council as well.”
Councilmembers Beard, Chris Phan, and Steve Jones did not respond to a request for comment.
Mayor Bao Nguyen declined to comment on the employment of relatives until the DA completes its investigation, but added that he believes the city will be transparent moving forward.
“I think people want the city to be fair in its hiring and that they all have a fair chance when they apply for jobs — and I think we’ve made that clear moving forward,” Nguyen. “But it’s important people continue to hold us accountable and bring up these issues.”
Contact Thy Vo at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.