A proposed change to the city of La Crosse’s anti-nepotism policy is raising concerns among police and firefighters, who argue it would hurt recruitment and retention efforts in the city.
The policy, as written, disqualifies any candidate who would be supervised by or supervise a family member. What’s more, if one employee becomes an “immediate family member” of another employee and results in one of them supervising the other, one of them must transfer to another department, take a demotion or quit within six months.
The policy change, proposed by Human Resources Director Wendy Oestreich, will go before the Finance and Personnel Committee on Feb. 4. Oestreich said the proposal was not introduced in response to a specific incident, but rather it was intended to update the city’s outdated 2003 policy.
“You can’t be hired to work under an immediate family member,” she said.
The proposed policy includes a new section to address situations where one employee becomes a family member of another, either by marriage or by one employee marrying another’s relative. Police and fire chiefs said those changes will penalize their employees, who tend to share an occupation with their spouses or other family members.
The changes would have an immediate impact and could hurt recruitment, Fire Chief Gregg Cleveland said.
Firefighters are insulted by a policy that penalizes them for personal relationships, La Crosse fire union president Lt. Lance Tryggestad said.
“We hire great employees and because their marital status changes, you’re going to penalize them?” he said.
The proposal could disqualify top candidates for a position because of a relationship that doesn’t impact their work ethic, he said.
“This will affect us and harm our department. Firefighting and policing, that’s in our blood,” Tryggestad said. “It’s a family thing all over the world.”
The fire union suggests removing the portion that would require an employee to transfer, take a demotion or quit if their position would require them to supervise a family member. Currently, a La Crosse fire captain and a firefighter are brothers-in-law.
La Crosse Police Chief Ron Tischer also is working with the two police unions to propose a similar amendment, according to a statement he released last week. The policy would affect at least four officers.
Retired La Crosse police Lt. Dan Marcou, who has written two books on the agency, said the city already has lost out on good cops because of the anti-nepotism policy, and it would be a mistake to expand it.
“I’ve seen the quality that comes out of families of law enforcement, and the city should be striving to benefit from that, not to prevent it,” he said.
Marcou, whose brother is La Crosse Municipal Court Judge Dennis Marcou, said arrangements can be made to avoid any partiality, preferential treatment or conflicts of interest with proper monitoring.
“You deal with unfairness when you find it, but you don’t punish everybody to avoid what might happen,” Dan Marcou said.
La Crosse Mayor Tim Kabat said the policy reflects the city’s responsibility to ensure operations aren’t affected by family relationships.
“There have to be safeguards in place,” he said. “I think for the most part this is trying to codify what is the current practice.”
Kabat and Oestreich each stressed that the policy could be amended by a committee or the La Crosse Common Council.
“Of course, the last thing we want is for our good employees to be penalized or any type of policy that would injure recruiting new employees to come on board or hurt retention efforts,” Kabat said.
Kabat said that he didn’t want the city forcing anyone to resign, adding that the police department’s three shifts allow for greater flexibility to ensure a supervisor is not directly in charge of a family member.
The policy includes a clause allowing for the director of human resources to waive the provisions in “exceptional circumstances.”
Oestreich said her primary motivation in updating the policy was to ensure that all employees, including those who are part-time or seasonal, were subject to the policy, rather than only full-time employees.
She also has proposed changes to the policy that would relax rules to allow family members of city employees who work in the finance or legal departments, as well as the treasurer’s and mayor’s offices, to be employed by the city.
The definition of “immediate family member” also would expand to include stepparents, stepchildren, stepsiblings, grandchildren and grandparents.
“I’ve seen the quality that comes out of families of law enforcement, and the city should be striving to benefit from that, not to prevent it.” Dan Marcou, retired La Crosse police lieutenant