By Jon Alexander
ELIZABETHTOWN - Inquiring minds want to know whether a last name helps or hinders a person's chance of getting a job in Essex County government.
Following intense scrutiny from a handful of residents, Essex County supervisors are considering the creation of an ethics committee, and they may begin requiring more disclosure of personal and family relationships between county leadership and candidates for county employment.
Over the last few months, the hiring of several close relatives of County Manager Dan Palmer and his wife, Board of Supervisors Clerk Deborah Doyle-Palmer, have some residents wondering if nepotism is running rampant in Essex County.
But county supervisors and department heads refuted the rumors and allegations of unfair hiring practices, calling the claims unfounded.
At an organizational meeting of the county Board of Supervisors Jan. 4, Essex resident Sandy Lewis addressed the group and urged greater disclosure of the county's hiring process, particularly when family members of current employees are involved.
Essex County Board of Supervisors Chairman Randy Douglas said he doesn't believe any bias now taints hiring decisions, but said it may be time to list the many close relationships among county leadership and staff.
"At this point we will do some study of it, but I don't think it is running wild like everybody thinks it is," Douglas said.
Before taking the helm of the county, Douglas had chaired the Personnel Committee for five years. He noted that it may be time for the formation of a county Board of Supervisors ethics committee, which could oversee potential conflicts of interest and provide greater protection to the taxpayer.
Supervisors typically only oversee the hiring of department heads, who in turn hire staff as long as the position already exists.
County officials said department heads sometimes consult with the county manager and the personnel office before making a final decision.
At least four members of the Doyle-Palmer family have been hired into various county departments.
Most recently, Deborah Palmer's sister-in-law, Patti Doyle, was hired by newly-elected District Attorney Kristy Sprague, and Deborah Palmer's brother, Patrick Doyle, was hired as a Department of Public Works mechanic only a few months prior.
Patti Doyle's daughter-in-law, Erica Fuller Doyle was hired in the Personnel Department and Palmer's sister-in-law, Shona, was hired to replace Patti Doyle as Deputy Republican Commissioner at the County Board of Elections.
Deborah Palmer's daughter, Brianne Weber, is employed in the County Clerk's office under Joe Provancha, who is Dan Palmer's cousin.
When all the salaries are included, the Doyle-Palmer family grosses more than $250,000 a year of taxpayer money.
But according to St. Armand Supervisor Joyce Morency, the lion's share of this amount falls under the salaries of the county manager and the clerk of the board, both of whom have earned it, she said.
Deborah Palmer earns more than $63,000 annually plus a longevity stipend of $1,680 while Dan Palmer draws a salary of about $95,000 as county manager plus another $18,000 for his position as Information Systems director.
Morency noted that many county jobs require a civil service exam, and that the test scores can't be affected by favoritism.
"A lot of these jobs have those restrictions, but you can't say that the person who scored the highest doesn't deserve the job regardless if their brother or father works for the county or not," Morency said.
Morency called Palmer the most effective and fair County Manager she has seen in her 27 years on the board.
But the Palmers aren't the only officials with family members employed by county government. Others include Elizabethtown Supervisor Noel Merrihew's daughter, Chelsea, who is employed in the County Clerk's office, Wilmington Supervisor Randy Preston's wife Wendy who works in the Office for the Aging, North Hudson Supervisor Robert Dobie's sister-in-law Sindy Brazee who is employed in the Board of Elections and Sheriff Henry Hommes's son Scott Hommes who is employed in the county's Department of Emergency Services.
For their part, county officials are quick to note that Essex County is one of the largest employers in the region with 400 employees, and therefore some relatives working under the same roof is inevitable.
Brushing off the allegations, Dan Palmer said Jan. 6 that he has been completely up front with the hirings of all of his relatives and has not imposed undue influence over the hiring process.