2015-01-28 / Maine

Hiring of Lincoln parks and rec. director shines light on nepotism in small towns

BY NICK SAMBIDES JR. Bangor Daily News


Jeremy Weatherbee is the town’s new cemeteries, parks and recreation department director. Citizens with questions or concerns about that would need to talk with his father, Town Manager Ron Weatherbee.

Is it nepotism? One member of the Lincoln Town Council voted against Jeremy Weatherbee’s hiring, and two others expressed reservations about it, because of the appearance of impropriety. Yet six other councilors voted to hire Jeremy Weatherbee, after a threeperson hiring committee recommended him to his father, Ron Weatherbee, who put his son’s name forward.

Jeremy Weatherbee was one of two finalists amid 11 applicants.

The 36-year-old’s hiring highlights the difficulties associated with nepotism in small Maine towns. While cities like Bangor and Portland have strict regulations that prevent employees from hiring and supervising relatives, as does state government, avoiding such conflicts is more difficult in towns with small populations in which residents are often related.

Jeremy Wetherbee began his new job last week after the council voted 6-1 on Jan. 12 to hire him. Councilor Jeffery Gifford said he cast the opposing vote because Jeremy Weatherbee’s $42,346 salary was too high, and that he had “concerns” about the impartiality of a hiring process that involved a father and son.

“I think it should have been put out entirely to an impartial panel. I don’t know if there is anything wrong with [the way it was handled], but it doesn’t look well,” Gifford said Thursday. “I was the only one on the council who felt that way, but that’s OK. I don’t mind being the lone wolf. I’ve done it before.”

When asked whether he felt Jeremy Weatherbee was the best qualified candidate for the position, Gifford responded, “Only time will tell. I can’t tell until I see his work.”

Chairman Steve Clay said he and the council majority were satisfied that, by sandwiching Ron Weatherbee’s recommendation between the three-member committee’s nominations and the council’s final vote, the town had shielded itself against favoritism.

Jeremy Weatherbee “has had prior experience in the position, he is local, and I think that makes a difference,” Clay said. “We had an executive session, Ron laid his case out to the council and he is the personnel director. It is his decision to make.”

Lincoln’s Town Charter lacks provisions regarding nepotism, and there is no state law or regulation preventing Maine municipal officials from hiring relatives. But it’s a different story for state employees.

Both state law regarding the hiring of state workers and the Maine Bureau of Human Resources Policy and Practices Manual prohibit relatives from hiring relatives. Section 7051 of the Maine Revised Statutes states that “the final decision of whether a person will be hired or promoted by the State may not be made in part or wholly by a person related to the job candidate.”

“Relatives of a candidate for appointment or promotion should not take any role whatsoever in a selection process” to avoid any perceptions of nepotism “even if the selection process was technically correct,” the manual states.

The state’s three largest cities, Bangor, Portland and Lewiston, have anti-nepotism policies that prohibit relatives from working in the same city departments or involving themselves in the hiring of relatives. Both prohibit department supervisors from having relatives working in their direct chain of command. Portland’s also prohibits indirect supervision.

Bangor’s anti-nepotism policy “is offered to show that jobs in the public sector are related to what you know, not who you know. You don’t want a perception that people are being hired because they know someone,” said Bangor Human Resources Director and Assistant City Manager Bob Farrar, who has enforced the policy for 26 years.

Clay said that the council did not consult the town’s attorney, the Maine Municipal Association or any other laws or guidelines before hiring Jeremy Weatherbee.

If they had consulted MMA, they would have found that the municipal government advisory service doesn’t offer specific guidelines to town governments regarding nepotism, said MMA spokesman Eric Conrad.

The population of many Maine towns is so sparse that the hiring of a relative might be unavoidable, Conrad said.

A list of towns by population MMA compiled shows 124 of Maine’s 511 municipalities with populations of 500 or less. Of those, 35 have 100 residents or less. Lincoln had 5,085 residents in 2010, according to the most recent U.S. Census report.

“We know cases where the most qualified people [for a government job] is somebody from that town who is related to someone in authority in that town,” added Conrad, who declined to identify specific cases.

Jeremy Weatherbee said he would have been happy to have done his job interview in a public forum to dispel any impressions of unfairness.

“I have nothing to hide,” he said.

His hiring process, however, wasn’t without contention. In response to a Maine Freedom of Access Act request, Clay released several emails exchanged Dec. 17 that quote Councilors Chris Stevens, Gifford and David Whalen saying that Ron Weatherbee should be excluded from the process. Councilor Dede Trask supported his involvement and Clay had mixed feelings, the emails show.

But an email from Clay to the seven councilors sent Dec. 20 related a straw poll of councilors that he conducted effectively forced Ron Weatherbee to make a recommendation, Clay said.

“I have heard from all councilors and the majority say to have the committee do the interviews,” Clay wrote. “Then they will present the final candidates to Ron and Ron will hire.”

Also, Ron Weatherbee “came to me and said he was going to select Jeremy and I said, ‘Justify it,’ and he did,” Clay said during an interview.

“I knew that there would be some people out there who said he hired him because he was his son, and that’s it. I can see why some people would think that,” Clay added. “I think people who are going to make that claim need to go out and to back up their thought on why.”

Weatherbee held the rec department director’s position for 2? years before resigning in March 2006. He was a part-time recreation department worker for the last six months and has worked part time or as a volunteer intermittently for Lincoln since he was 18, when he dug graves as a part-time laborer.

Public service runs in the family. His father held the parks and recreation director’s job from June 2008 to November 2014. Ron Weatherbee’s uncle was the late Town Councilor John Weatherbee, who died in July 2006 after serving on the council for decades.

“I was hired by the town council to do a job,” Jeremy Weatherbee said, “one I have done in the past and done well, and I plan to continue that.”

Ron Weatherbee said he doesn’t expect to have any issues supervising Jeremy Weatherbee.

Being the direct supervisor of his son should prove “interesting I would say, but along those same lines but he has a job to do. He will do his and I will do mine. He will do his job just like any other department head,” Ron Weatherbee said.

Working for his father won’t present a problem, Jeremy Weatherbee said.

“He has been my direct supervisor for my entire life,” the younger Weatherbee said. “I would say that we have worked through that quite successfully for 36 years.”

FOR MORE, visit Bangor Daily News at www.bangordailynews.com

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