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Kansas City Council Relaxes Nepotism Rules For Fire Department

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Sam Zeff
KCUR 89.3
The council voted 11-1 to ease the city's nepotism rules for the fire department.

The fire department, whose employees include numerous relatives, had pressed for the changes

The Kansas City Council on Thursday voted to exempt the fire department from some anti-nepotism provisions of the city’s Ethics Code.

With no discussion, the council voted 11-1 to pass the ordinance, which generally still bars a family member from directly supervising another family member. Rather, it requires another layer of management in between.

But it also allows for a family member to directly answer to another family member "if responsibility for personnel actions are delegated in writing” to a higher level within the chain of command.

And it adds a provision that appears to remove the prohibition against a family member hiring another family member for overtime or “special duty assignments.”

Only Third District-at-Large Councilman Brandon Ellington voted against the ordinance.

The city’s current Ethics Code was adopted in 2013 and applies to all city officials and employees, vendors and applicants for employment.

The fire department, whose employees include numerous relatives, had pressed for the changes.

In an interview before the vote was taken, Mayor Quinton Lucas, who sponsored the ordinance, said it was designed to address a problem with recruiting.

“We recognize that there are lots of people who, if they grew up in a firefighter family, have some interest in joining the fire service,” he told KCUR. “So we wanted to remove this potential barrier in the event that there are certain firefighters – parents, for example, or uncles – who have risen in the ranks and thus would be supervising a large part of the service.”

Kansas City’s Ethics Code is largely based on a model Ethics Code proposed by City Ethics Inc., a nonprofit that provides information and resources for local government ethics programs. The rules are designed to prevent family members from favoring other family members and to bolster diversity within a department’s ranks.

“People defend nepotism in uniformed departments as a national, family tradition, which is hard to oppose,” a book published by City Ethics states. “But there is another related tradition involved: racial and ethnic discrimination. Family members usually share the race and ethnicity of those who run the department, and giving them jobs prefers their race and ethnicity over others’.”

Concerns about favoritism typically extend not just to applicants seeking jobs but often to members of the affected departments themselves.

Last year, for example, members of the Miami Beach Fire Department told the Miami Herald that they were concerned nepotism had played a role in the selection of that year’s recruits. They said that created possible safety issues.

Of the 21 recruits chosen for fire department training in Miami Beach, six were related to current employees.

To prevent that kind of situation from arising, Los Angeles enacted a rule in 2014 requiring fire department members who are involved in recruiting and who are acquainted with an applicant to report that information to their supervisors.

Lucas said he wasn’t concerned that relaxing the nepotism rules for the fire department would have an adverse effect on diversity within its ranks.

“I don’t know if it makes a difference,” he said. “I think the way we actually get a more diverse workforce is by taking more active, affirmative steps to try to increase recruiting in communities that have been historically under-represented."

“Lacking that type of aggressive work, just saying, ‘Alright, nobody who is kin to anyone in the fire service can work here,’ we’ll still have a fire service that is still fairly largely white, probably from certain parts of our city," Lucas said. "And so I think that this doesn’t actually create that concern. Instead, it allows us to avoid what has been a bureaucratic hurdle for some trying to join our fire service.”

Kansas City’s powerful firefighters’ union, Local 42 of the International Association of Fire Fighters, endorsed Lucas when he ran for mayor last year.

Asked why the same exemptions shouldn't apply to other city departments, Lucas said he was willing to consider relaxing nepotism rules for them as well.

“I think it’s a matter of legislative efficiency, biting off chunks one at a time,” he said.

He added: “I think the biggest part is to make sure you still have safeguards that you’re free from influence. And I would submit that anybody who is in a management position or even on the elective side – we have our own kind of compliance issues to make sure we’re not interfering with those sorts of things.”

Dan Margolies has been a reporter for the Kansas City Business Journal, The Kansas City Star, and KCUR Public Radio. He retired as a reporter in December 2022 after a 37-year journalism career.
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