It appears a recent change to the city of Morganton nepotism policy was made to allow a former councilman to run for office without impacting his nephew’s job with the city.
Larry Whisnant previously served on the city council for 16 years but went off the board in 2011 because he moved out of his district. That year, he chose not to run for re-election because it would mean running against fellow board member Forrest Fleming, according to previous News Herald stories.
On July 5, Whisnant filed to run for Fleming’s seat. Fleming, who has served on the board since 2007, has confirmed to The News Herald he doesn’t plan to run for re-election.
Fleming is one of the three members of city council who voted on June 17 to change the city’s nepotism policy to allow aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, cousins and people living together to work for the city in the same department.
The policy on nepotism says it’s in place, “To prevent actual or perceived favoritism and/or discrimination in the workplace, no person shall be hired, assigned to work or allowed to work for the city in a full-time or part-time position within the same department as an immediate family member of that person . The city also prohibits employment of any person in any permanent position who is an immediate family member of any person holding any of the following offices or positions: Mayor, City Council member, City Manager, Assistant City Manager, City Attorney, Finance Director or Human Resources Director.”
Larry Whisnant’s nephew, Jason Whisnant, is a captain with Morganton Department of Public Safety. City Attorney Louis Vinay confirmed this week that if Larry Whisnant had run and was elected, under the old nepotism policy, Capt. Whisnant would have been forced to leave his job.
The News Herald asked Fleming if the nepotism policy was changed so Larry Whisnant could run without jeopardizing Capt. Whisnant’s job with the city.
“I wasn’t aware that that had something to do with it,” Fleming said. “However, it certainly did appear that way, didn’t it?”
Mayor Ronnie Thompson and City Councilman Sidney Simmons, who both voted for the policy change, also said the change was not made so Larry Whisnant could run for Fleming’s seat. Simmons said he and Larry Whisnant were longtime friends.
"Oh yes, I grew up on the same street with Larry," Simmons said Wednesday. "I've known him for 60 years."
When Fleming was asked whether anyone on the council had asked him to help change the policy so Larry could run, he would not answer the question.
“I don’t think I want to be pinned down that close,” Fleming told The News Herald on Wednesday.
When The News Herald told him it is his seat on the council and pressed him to answer the question, Fleming continued to avoid it.
City Manager Sally Sandy on Wednesday told The News Herald that she was asked by Forrest Fleming about the nepotism policy and asked specifically what it would mean for Jason Whisnant if Larry Whisnant ran for city council. She said she told Fleming that, as the policy was written at that time, Jason Whisnant would have to leave his job as captain with public safety within six months if his uncle were to win the seat.
In a 2016 city personnel memorandum , Thompson, Fleming and Simmons initialed support for a nepotism policy that includ ed the family members that they exempted at the June 17 council meeting , according to a document from the city. Fleming told The News Herald that his most recent vote to change it was because times change. Simmons and Thompson both said they voted to change it because the city was narrowing its job applicant pool too much with the previous policy .
In addition, Simmons said there are employees working at the city currently who are related. Sandy confirmed there are people related working for the city but they work for different departments and were not violating the previous policy.
Council members Wendy Cato and Chris Hawkins voted against changing the policy.
Cato said before election filing started on July 5 all of the council members had heard that Larry Whisnant was thinking about filing for Fleming’s seat.
Cato said Thompson approached her at a real estate luncheon on June 6 about the nepotism policy.
“And I said, ‘Well, you know, Ronnie, I know, the reason you want it changed is so that Larry can run.’ And he said, ‘Well, I want Larry to run, but it’s stopping us from getting some good employees,’” Cato said about the conversation.
She said it is her personal opinion that the nepotism policy was changed so Larry Whisnant could run without affecting his nephew’s employment.
Vinay said Thompson asked him about amending the policy a couple of weeks before the vote, and that he drafted three proposed policies that would reflect a more narrow definition of immediate family.
Hawkins, who is a senior vice president and district manager at State Employees Credit Union, said he is familiar with nepotism policies because of his job, and that he voted against the policy because of its merits.
“I’ve just seen over the years how a broader policy is the best way to go,” Hawkins said. “It helps avoid supervisory conflicts, favoritism or the appearance of favoritism, it avoids different influences that family members, depending on your definition of immediate family, can make or have on promotions or conflicts.”
Hawkins said city staff told him when he was getting information about the June 17 meeting that changing the nepotism policy was on the agenda, and that he had heard Larry Whisnant was considering running for council. He said no one on the council approached him directly about voting for the change.
Sandy said Wednesday that she supported a strong anti-nepotism policy.
“As I have shared with the elected officials and others, in my tenure at the city, I've had a situation where the employment of relative s caused issues,” Sandy said. “And I think a strong anti-nepotism policy is a good employment policy … Because I think that it lessens the opportunities for disruption in your workplace based on family relationships.”
She said she has had situations where relatives worked together and one of the relatives had to leave the city, but that she believes that’s the best policy for the workplace.
“It's real hard, and it is very difficult, and it affects people's lives and their livelihoods,” Sandy said. “And we have lost good employees that way. But I still believe that it serves the overall good of the workplace well to have a strong anti-nepotism policy.”'
When The News Herald talked to Simmons and asked at the end of the conversation whether there was anything else he wanted to say, Simmons said he did but he wasn't going to say it. He then said, "We're digging somewhere just to stir up a stink."