Two cities in south Orange County are tackling the issue of nepotism within weeks of each other, raising the question of whether or not relatives of city council members should be allowed to serve on city committees. 

The issue has come up before in Orange County, leading to disputes in Laguna Niguel and Westminster last year over how to handle the problem, with the issue spilling into Irvine this year. 

[Read: Family Ties: Nepotism Fuels Political Fights in Some Orange County Cities]

Laguna Niguel City Councilmembers unanimously adopted their own new policy on nepotism last week that bars anyone related to a city councilmember from seeking a job at the city or being appointed to a city committee or panel. 

The council got into a heated debate over nepotism when the topic was first introduced last November. 

The initial complaint was directed at Mayor Elaine Gennawey, who’s son Raymond is running for city council and applied to serve on a city commission last year, a position he was denied. 

She called the $10,000 price tag that came with the city attorney’s report on nepotism “an attempt to waste taxpayer dollars,” last year.  

But Gennawey fully supported the nepotism ordinance the council ultimately adopted last Tuesday, opening the discussion praising it. 

“I’m glad to see this ordinance on the agenda. I fully support it,” Gennawey said at the council’s discussion on March 15.

Councilwoman Kelly Jennings, wife of former Councilman Mark Jennings who also came under criticism during the nepotism debate, also approved the ordinance – but with less praise.

“I continue to believe there was never any issue to have this, but I appreciate that it’s here,” Jennings said. “We didn’t need to incur the many thousands of dollars and attorneys fees, but I appreciate the work that went into this.”

Irvine City Councilmembers are set to pick up the nepotism discussion in their meeting this upcoming Tuesday in a policy proposal put forward by Mayor Farrah Khan and Councilwoman Tammy Kim.  

While the item was originally set to be discussed at a council meeting in March, it was pulled at the last minute and reintroduced for the council’s April 12 meeting. 

When asked about the item in a text last month, Kim said no one was violating any existing policies, but that she felt they should be changed because Councilman Larry Agran’s wife Phyllis Agran serves on the city’s Children, Youth and Family Advisory Committee. 

“I think that appointments should be spread out to residents of the community to give others a chance to serve,” Kim said. 

Phyllis is a pediatrician specializing in pediatric gastroenterology and also teaches at UC Irvine’s school of medicine, according to a news release from Councilman Agran’s office released when she was appointed. 

When asked about the issue, the Councilman said he didn’t see a nepotism issue at play here. 

“Nepotism is a special kind of corruption that involves appointing a family member to a paid job for which he or she is not qualified,” Agran said in a phone call Wednesday morning. “My wife is eminently qualified, and this is a volunteer committee. There’s no compensation involved whatsoever.”

“I just don’t quite understand what problem in the city of Irvine the Mayor and Councilmember Kim are trying to solve here.” 

The vote on Tuesday won’t enact any new policies, but would direct the city attorney to prepare a report similar to the one in Laguna Niguel that outlines the potential issues of nepotism and what the city could do to restrict it further. 

According to the letter posted on the city agenda, the city’s current policies already prohibit anyone related to a city councilmember from being hired or contracted with by the city, but it doesn’t restrict their appointment to committees. 

Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at nbiesiada@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada. 

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