Richmond leaders may end practice of letting family members join city boards

RICHMOND — Relatives and business partners of sitting Richmond councilmembers may soon no longer be welcomed on city commissions and other decision-making bodies.

The City Council on Tuesday began weighing a nepotism ordinance that would prevent councilmembers and staff with hiring power from appointing their family and business associates to boards, commissions, committees and task forces. It would also stop them from hiring relatives to city positions.

But, if eventually approved, loved ones currently on those boards would be allowed to finish their terms.

Under the city charter, the mayor has authority to recommend board appointments, which then need council approval. On Tuesday, Vice Mayor Claudia Jimenez and Councilmember Cesar Zepeda, who brought forward the ordinance, argued the lack of a clear nepotism policy leaves the city vulnerable to corruption.

The city’s administrative manual includes a broad definition for relatives — everyone from a parent, step-parent, parent-in-law, grandparent, child, step-child, grandchild, brother, sister, step-brother, step-sister, aunt, uncle or first-cousin — but doesn’t prevent someone from hiring a relative.

“In a perfect world scenario, we have no corruption, but we’re not there and this is the only opportunity we have to make sure that in the future we prevent as much of that from happening,” Zepeda said. “This is here to protect the people of Richmond in the future because we don’t know what future councilmembers and mayors are going to do.”

Former councilmembers have appointed family to decision making bodies in the past and multiple current councilmembers have relatives serving on different commissions.

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Councilmember Doria Robinson’s partner served on the Human Relations Commission and their term just expired on March 30. Councilmember Soheila Bana’s husband is also on the Human Relations Commission, with his term expiring next year. Former Mayor Tom Butt was on council while his son Andrew Butt was on the Planning Commission.

And at least one city employee, a former finance director, had a “sphere of influence” over their spouse who was chief of police at the time, Mayor Eduardo Martinez said during the Tuesday meeting. Martinez’s wife currently serves on the Richmond-Regla Sister City Committee.

Jimenez, Zepeda and Martinez argued in favor of allowing those related to current councilmembers who are currently serving to finish out their terms but not be allowed to reapply for appointment until their family member is no longer on the council.

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While in support of the spirit of the proposal, Councilmember Melvin Willis said he wouldn’t want to adopt a policy that would prevent qualified people from serving the city just because they have a close relative or business partner on the council. Willis also said he’d prefer to not issue an “eviction notice” to those currently serving who have close ties to elected leaders.

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He suggested the policy should require councilmembers to recuse themselves from any vote having to do with placing their relative on a board. If a close relation of the mayor is vying for a position, Willis said the mayor should pass appointment power to the vice mayor to avoid any conflicts of interest.

“I don’t want to bar anybody from being able to participate publicly just because they have a member of the family on the council,” Willis said. “Let’s not create barriers for people. Let’s just make sure the folks who have decision making power aren’t the ones voting on those decisions when it’s your direct family member, relative, spouse involved.”

Martinez said he understood the arguments for both sides. As the person charged with finding qualified people who are able and willing to serve, Martinez said additional restrictions would make that process more challenging but he sided in favor of a stronger ordinance. He did suggest advisory bodies without decision making power should be separated from those that do, such as the Planning Commission and Design and Review Board.

Willis ultimately joined his colleagues is supporting the measure after all and directing staff to return with a drafted policy. Councilmembers Gayle McLaughlin, Robinson and Bana were absent from Tuesday’s meeting, but City Attorney Dave Aleshire said the council will have the opportunity to restate their points when a drafted ordinance comes back at a later date.

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