Is it still who you know that gets a job in Polk County government? – Des Moines Register

When a county employee found out the son of one of Polk County’s highest-paid administrators earned close to $70,000 over the past year doing work for the assessor’s office in an area of that office that his mother directly oversees, the employee contacted Watchdog, saying the no-bid contract reeked of nepotism, or at least a conflict of interest.
After strong disagreements over new leadership and high turnover in another county office, that of Treasurer Mary Wells, several employees also contacted county supervisors and Watchdog alleging Wells was hiring friends and acquaintances with little or no experience and that more qualified candidates were being overlooked.
And after two years of efforts to bring more diversity and fairness to county hiring, county supervisors last week picked John Mauro, a former supervisor who many employees say fostered a decades-long system of good-old-boy patronage in county government, to serve on one of its most important boards.
From the supervisors to county Assessor Randy Ripperger to Wells, elected officials defended their decisions, saying they picked the best candidates for the jobs needed.
But in a county government rife with division, flush with gambling money from its Prairie Meadows Casino and saddled with a long history of complaints about cronyism, nepotism and political featherbedding, who and how people get chosen for positions is often questioned, whether they turn out to be good hires or not.
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“It’s been almost like a joke,” said April Lowe, who spent 17 years as a cashier in the treasurer’s office before taking an $8,000-a-year pay cut this year to transfer to the sheriff’s office. “To get a job with the county, you either grew up on the south side or you knew a supervisor. It’s always been that way. I always prided myself saying, ‘I didn’t know anybody when I got hired.’”
If you talk to county leaders — from the supervisors to department heads ― many acknowledge there was a time in the not-too-distant past when elected officials rewarded supporters with public service jobs.
“Historically, we know there’s been a lot of patronage. We don’t want to do that anymore,” said County Administrator John Norris.
Several current and former county leaders told Watchdog that patronage, nepotism and featherbedding flourished under the long tenure of Mauro, a south side political powerhouse and dealmaker who lost his seat to current Supervisor Matt McCoy in an uncharacteristically brutal race in 2018. Mauro had served a total of 24 years. His brother Michael Mauro, Iowa’s secretary of state from 2007 to 2011, was also Polk County auditor for part of that time, overseeing county elections.
Today, at least four Mauros are still on the county payroll. And several members of families with ties to the political dynasty that Mauro himself, in a 2004 interview with U.S. News & World Report, called “La Machina,” continue to work in departments across the county.
Mauro did not respond to a phone call seeking comment.
Four of five current supervisors ― Chair Angela Connolly, Tom Hockensmith, Robert Brownell and McCoy ― also have relatives in county jobs.
Still, Jeff Edgar, a lawyer who has overseen the county’s human resources for the past two years, said hiring practices have gotten much more professional and inclusive across county government.
Edgar said his staff has enhanced ratings charts for applicants to ensure the most qualified applicants are those who score highest in meeting minimum qualifications for jobs. They routinely advise county departments on using best practices, making merit-based hiring decisions and using feedback from new hires and employee exit interviews to make better decisions.
The county also has greatly expanded recruiting at community events and begun collecting data on how diversity and inclusion in its workforce have changed over time, something Edgar and Norris said was barely considered before.
“We don’t make the decisions, but we hope they take what we say and apply it,” Edgar said.
Still, elected officials in the county have autonomy in hiring in a way nonelected department heads do not. And while the state’s nepotism law prevents department heads from hiring relatives they would oversee, anyone else is fair game. In some salaried, nonunion jobs, people have been hired over the years without any advertising or pool of applicants, numerous county leaders said.
The result, they said, is that some people land jobs like they would at a small family business instead of one of central Iowa’s largest employers, with more than 1,500 workers.
Gary Dickey, a private attorney who has worked in Iowa’s judicial branch and in the governor’s office in the Vilsack administration, said one of his biggest concerns about Polk’s hiring is that elected officials wield power and financial influence over departments where their relatives or supporters also work.
“This really should be very concerning to people,” he said. “Public officials are fiduciaries who owe the public a duty of loyalty and trust. And if they are serious about that duty, they ought to be advocating for the very best person for that position and not allowing family members to cut to the front of the line.”
Bob Stern, a founder and past president of the Center for Governmental Studies who co-authored California’s Political Reform Act and chaired its Fair Political Practices Commission, said it’s difficult for government to police how insiders and friends of political leaders benefit from those associations unless they are publicized. But nepotism is illegal in every state, and most, including Iowa, prohibit public employees from using their positions to gain private advantage, financial or otherwise.
Under Iowa law, county employees also are prohibited from having an interest, direct or indirect, in a contract with the same county.
Arguments over how people have been hired in Polk County are at the heart of several highly contentious and potentially costly legal battles playing out among current and former Polk County leaders in Iowa’s court system.
Jim Nahas, the county’s former human resources chief, filed a scathingly worded lawsuit last year against four of the five supervisors, Norris and the county. Nahas alleged one of the main reasons he was fired grew out of squabbling over who the supervisors wanted to be the next county manager: Frank Marasco, the chief administrator in the Polk sheriff’s office, or Norris, a former chief of staff for Gov. Tom Vilsack and Democratic gubernatorial candidate who ultimately got the job.
Nahas also accused Hockensmith, an east side Democrat who has been a supervisor for almost 20 years, of having the county create a job for his daughter at higher-than-entry-level pay then verbally abusing him for disclosing that new position on a meeting agenda the entire Board of Supervisors could see.
Nahas also alleged Hockensmith protected a department head accused of sexual harassment and had county employees do campaign work for him on county time.
Then, Nahas claimed in the suit, Hockensmith conspired with Connolly, the board chair, and others to get him fired.
At the time of the suit’s filing, Hockensmith denied Nahas’ allegations. He acknowledged his daughter was hired at the Polk County Sheriff’s Office, though she later left.
Supervisor Brownell said that to some extent, favoritism can exist at any employer, and nothing is wrong with recommending someone for a position if the person chosen to do the job is qualified.  
Brownell, a Republican and former Clive mayor who has been on the board since 2000, said his son, Kevin Brownell, interned years ago at the Polk County Attorney’s Office before he passed the bar and became an attorney there. But Brownell said that he didn’t influence that decision and that he decided a long time ago not to meddle in the hiring decisions by department heads.
“To the extent that (patronage or nepotism) was true, I also just didn’t want to be a part of it,” he said.
Connolly, first elected in 1998, has a son, Jason, who is a project manager in the Polk County Sheriff’s Department. (County Attorney John Sarcone also has a son, Jim, who works there, running the sheriff’s office of professional standards.)
Connolly also has two brothers who have worked for the county during her tenure, including one who retired a few years ago. The other, Tony Lemmo Sr., works in the county auditor’s election office.
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Connolly said she can’t remember if she ever recommended any relatives for positions in the county, but she never insisted they get hired.
“Hey, if you know somebody (for a job), you’re probably going mention it,” she said.
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McCoy, who was chair of the Board of Supervisors in 2021 when Nahas was terminated, said he started asking questions about hiring practices and conflicts of interests as soon as he was elected over Mauro in 2018.
The board on Nov. 15 approved Mauro, 81, to a seat on the Prairie Meadows board of directors, which oversees the county-owned casino and doles out millions every year in grants to the community.
Before the vote, McCoy railed against the appointment, saying it was “clearly a move to enshrine cronyism in Polk County government,” a rejection of good government, and ignored the need for more diversity on the board. He also said it was a return to “good-ol’-boy form of government that seems to be deeply rooted in this Board of Supervisors.”
Hockensmith attacked McCoy as a hypocrite and a grandstander, saying he has his own political supporters working in county government.
In an interview, McCoy said the way some county leaders are still choosing people for key positions tarnishes the county’s image and demoralizes employees “in the trenches,” especially when it appears that those close to county leaders get good jobs over others who are more qualified.
He said there also have been instances in county departments in recent years when relatives ― a father and son who worked in general services, and brother and sister in the treasurer’s office ― were under the same chain of command, which is problematic.
“It’s challenging,” he said, “You can have good people. But when you have the appearance of a conflict, it doesn’t look good.”
McCoy said he has a brother-in-law, Pat Sweeney, who is employed by the county, but Sweeney worked there long before he was elected. Sweeney has since been promoted to executive director at Polk County Veteran Affairs after a long tenure in the department.
More:Already paid more than some peers, Polk County elected officials get raises
A political ally of Nahas, McCoy has sought to join Nahas’ lawsuit alleging wrongful termination, libel, extortion and other counts against the county and the four other supervisors. He accuses them of making it virtually impossible for him to do his job as an elected official.
A key hearing before Iowa’s Supreme Court, which may decide whether the lawsuit can move forward, has been scheduled for Dec. 16.
Another lawsuit, filed against the county and McCoy by Sarah Boese, the county’s director of community relations, alleges discrimination, retaliation and violations of Iowa’s open meetings law.
Unlike other elected officials, Ripperger, the county assessor, reports to a conference board made up of representatives of local taxing districts, including the supervisors, local mayors and school board members. But his office’s bills are paid by Polk County.
Ripperger said his approval of a contract with Craig Larsen, the son of the office’s database administrator, Ruth Larsen, never violated Iowa’s nepotism law because she did not hire him for the $50-an-hour contract position.
“I made the decision to engage CMLarsen LLC during a succession planning meeting, which Ruth Larsen was not part of,” Ripperger wrote in an email to Watchdog. “That decision was based on a recommendation from one of our consultants that had worked with Mr. Larsen before. … Mr. Larsen has turned out to be an excellent programmer for this office at what I think is a bargain price.”
But some say awarding the contract to the son of a longtime county employee who oversees the kind of IT and programming work Craig Larsen has performed creates the appearance of a conflict, which can be a problem for other employees.
“It wouldn’t seem to pass the sniff test, would it?” said Paul Overton, president of the Iowa State Association of County Assessors. “I could see how there could be a perception there, and perception is nine-tenths of the law.”
Ripperger said the conference board overseeing the assessor’s office already has approved the hiring of two programmers as he looks for someone to replace Ruth Larsen when she retires. He didn’t say whether Craig Larsen is being considered.
Since last spring, when Wells was appointed to take over the treasurer’s office after the sudden death of longtime leader Mary Maloney, 32 of the office’s 71 employees have resigned.
Lowe was among those who complained to county leaders that Wells hired friends and acquaintances who lacked experience, including in well-paying supervisory positions. Lowe said Wells also hired the brother and sister McCoy mentioned.
“Maybe Mary Wells has absolute power to appoint whoever she wants, but she definitely did not have the needs of the Treasurer’s office or the Polk County taxpayers in mind when she made these appointments,” Lowe wrote to the supervisors before she transferred to the sheriff’s office.
Mary Griffin, a 28-year employee in that office, said she took early retirement this year at age 56 because working in the office became so stressful. The trainer Wells hired, she said, knew nothing about vehicle title transfers. Nor did supervisory staff Wells hired, she said.
 “One of the tax supervisors who recently left, they gave the job to a gentleman who wasn’t even trained on the property tax system,” she said.
Wells, who defeated a primary challenger, then was elected without opposition in the Nov. 8 general election, doesn’t deny there’s been a lot of turnover in her office since she took over last March.
She said she inherited an older, largely white female workforce for whom change has not been easy. She also said she’s been making big changes aimed at improving customer experience and employee training as well as diversity, equity and inclusion. Among the new positions she’s created has been a trainer, who has been training people in groups for more efficiency, she said.
In the short time she’s been in office, she said, she’s increased diversity hires by 82% and put some of them in supervisory roles for the first time in the history of the office.
She said it’s taken some time to get hours-long wait times reduced after the pandemic for those looking to transfer titles or pay their taxes, especially as she’s moved from a first-come, first-served system to more scheduled appointments.
“I serve a population of a half a million people,” she said. “New staff takes a while to get trained in.”
Wells said she’s left most hiring decisions in her office to its supervisors, and they’ve been trying to draw on a wider pool of qualified candidates. Others thought some candidates should have come from within the treasurer’s office.
“Just because you’ve been in the office a long period of time doesn’t mean you have the skillset we’re hiring for,” she said.
In only one case did she hire a deputy she knew previously from service on a board in the community, she said. She also said the sister and brother who were hired had different last names.
“I did not know they were brother or sister. They were hired at the exact same time and one didn’t work out,” she said.
Zach Bales, an administrative supervisor in the office who was hired in 2021, said he knows there’s been an unusual amount of turnover in the office since Wells took over. But he said many of the unhappy employees who left weren’t accustomed to the more corporate atmosphere fostered by Wells.
“I’m used to it,” he said.
Bales said he was a manager at AJ’s Steakhouse for years before he began looking for a job with better hours.
“There was a reason I got hired here, and it wasn’t because I knew her,” he said. “I knew zero people when I got here.”

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