Relatively speaking: Families in local government
Down on the Mississippi-washed banks of Missouri in the Heartland of America, local government is a family affair. Todd Smith presides over the Pettis County Board of Commissioners. His sister, Kathleen Boswell, sits on the city council of Sedalia, the county seat. Jim Ellis joins Smith on the county commission. His sister, Priscilla Young, works with Boswell on the city council. The situation is unusual, but it is by no means unique.
Across the country, family members are serving together on city councils and county commissions, making local government an arena ripe for familial closeness – and sibling rivalry. For most, however, making politics the family business seems to work well.
In Pettis County, for example, the family bonds shared by Smith and Boswell, and Ellis and Young, have bolstered communication and cooperation between the city council and the county commission, two political bodies that often clash. “When I came on, we actually came up with some real overtures towards the city with doing some cooperative things, and, with [Kathleen] there, it has made life easier for all of us,” Smith says.
That cooperation was particularly evident when Pettis County and Sedalia considered working jointly to build a new county jail. “Right when she came on, we did a joint jail project,” Smith says. “We have a jail that is terribly inadequate, so we extended two quarter-cent taxes that were due to expire to 2024.”
The city threw its support behind the project, handling the financing. “It has been quite an accomplishment, since the county has had jail problems for some length of time,” Smith says. “This all came about because of cooperation with our sisters and the council.” In fact, a referendum to build a new jail had been voted down four years earlier.
In politics, payback is sweet, and Boswell got hers in spades. She wanted to save an historic building in downtown Sedalia that had been damaged by arson. The city had condemned the building, and, by law, the condemning body may not take over the condemned property. At Smith’s urging, the county stepped in and took possession. “Todd knew that was a real passion of mine,” Boswell says. “It really worked well – that was our second thing – and we are looking forward to doing more things together.”
The cooperation between Sedalia and Pettis County has helped eliminate some of the competition that many cities and counties face. “We are both at it for the good of the entire community,” Boswell says. “There isn’t any intimidation or [turf battles, although] I am Todd’s older sister, and I occasionally had to beat up on him when he was a kid.”
While Smith and Boswell prefer to accentuate the positive, both believe that there is a downside to having family members share local government. “The greatest disadvantage would be if people thought that we are trying to get a machine going on here or showing some kind of favoritism,” Smith says.
Ellis notes that tension is a possibility “if there is some animosity within the family itself and it comes out in the political arena.” Still, he recognizes the overall benefits of working with family members. “I think being familiar with your family member, who might think the very same way that you do, or vice versa, is a big plus,” he says.
Although it is not necessary for a family relationship to work within local government, sharing political views can help defuse rough situations. Sharing a face, however, could create confusion.
Identical twins Roland and Ron Crummel both married schoolteachers; both have two daughters and a son; and both perform basically the same duties at work. Ron is the township clerk of Leelanaw in North Port, Mich., and Roland is the supervisor of Laketon Township in Muskegon, Mich. They work 150 miles apart, and they agree that distance is important.
“I think it is an advantage when you have distance because, if you are real close, people get skeptical and think that you are going to dominate,” Roland says. “Or [people feel they] are not getting their money’s worth because they are getting the same ideas, same thoughts [and the] same background.”
The brothers believe their ability to draw from each other’s common experiences while remaining politically separated is a plus. “We work together quite a bit,” Ron says. “We are both in charge of the computer systems in the office, we both do budgeting, and we consult with each other on a variety of issues like land use and zoning.”
Joe Knox and his brothers, Eddie and Russell, also shared genes and jobs, before Joe retired from his 30-year stint as mayor of Mooresville, N.C. During at least part of Joe’s tenure, Eddie and Russell served as the mayors of Charlotte, N.C., and Davidson, N.C., respectively.
Joe says that bouncing ideas off his mayoral brotherhood helped him be more successful. “Certain problems existed in Charlotte and Davidson that we did not have, and vice versa,” he says. “But there were some problems that we had in common that we felt free to discuss. I certainly think it was a positive thing.”
The potential for abuse
The tradition of public service within the Knox family (“It’s a donation to the community,” Knox says of his serv-ice) is common within many of the families that serve in local government. For Sam Abate, serving as mayor of Sloatsburg Village, N.Y., was a way to give something back to the community that had been good to him.
“Four generations of Abates have owned and operated a retail flower shop and greenhouse business in the village,” he says. “Through the years we have come to realize what our obligation has been to the community.” Abate’s son, Sam, Jr., shares that philosophy. He is the mayor of neighboring Ardsley Village, making the two the only father-son combination in New York’s history to serve as mayors at the same time.
Because of their long history in the area, the Abates are not particularly concerned that residents will think they are trying to create a political dynasty. “The Abate family has always been recognized as being in the forefront of local government here,” Sam says. “We take pride in that. Sometimes, people call the village `Abateville,’ but we chuckle about it.”
Jack McNulty can relate. He is the mayor of Green Island, N.Y., a village just north of Albany. But Jack is not the only McNulty that Green Island employs. Daughter Ellen McNulty-Ryan is a village trustee, the equivalent of a city councilmember; son Michael is the U.S. Congressman from the 21st District of New York (which includes Green Island); son John is the director of administration for the village’s industrial development agency; and granddaughter Kristin Swinton is a member of its planning board. (Daughter Mary, a nurse, is the only McNulty to escape the pull of politics.)
The McNulty family tradition of public service began with Jack’s father who served as tax collector, town supervisor, Albany County sheriff and state superintendent of public buildings. “We grew up in it,” Jack says.
All those politicians could make the McNulty family Thanksgiving a rowdy affair. But McNulty insists that the group does not argue. “We discuss,” he says, disingenuously. “We present our opinions on things, and then we reach a consensus.”
General public distaste for politics as a family business can be a problem. Voters do not like people they perceive as feeling “entitled” to the position by virtue of a name. And the potential for abuse does exist. Sedalia’s Boswell remembers when a man and his niece represented the same ward on the city council. “That is like zero representation when you’ve got two people from the same family representing one ward,” she says. “There was a time when I actually heard her turn to her uncle and say, `How did you say to vote?’ I was sitting there not believing it.”
Communication is key
Not having to go before the voters makes sharing a name somewhat easier for family members who serve in appointed positions, such as city manager. Additionally, being prohibited from engaging in partisan politics (specifically taboo under the International City/County Manager’s Association’s Code of Ethics) means few heated political debates that could cause familial rifts.
Still, as Linda Groomer knows, there are difficulties. Because of residency requirements, Groomer, assistant city manager in Farmer’s Branch, Texas, and her husband, Mike, assistant city manager in Fort Worth, Texas, live 28 miles apart. “Everybody knows people who aren’t married and live together,” she says. “We’re married, and we’ve never lived together.”
“This town’s not big enough for both of us,” Mike laughs.
The two met 20 years ago through the profession and married five years ago. Their courtship and marriage have been conducted primarily on the telephone. “Communication is always a challenge,” Groomer says. “But we’ve about come to the conclusion that our situation is better because we talk to each other three times a day and give each other our undivided attention.”
Conversations are mostly about work. “Do we ever talk about our jobs?” Linda laughs. “Do we ever talk about anything else? The problems are the same. The people are the same. There’s just more zeros at the end of one budget.”
“We give each other a lot of free consulting services,” Mike says. “But we don’t give advice. That’s not how we communicate. We’ll say, `Well, have you thought of this?'”
Mesquite (Texas) City Manager Ted Barron says he seeks his wife’s advice on every major issue. “We share a lot and have learned a lot from each other,” says Donna Barron, the assistant city manager in nearby Lewisville. “I understand what he’s doing. I’ve never quite understood how other marriages (in which the parties have separate careers) work.”
Married for 16 years, the Barrons met while he was putting together a trash collection video for Lubbock, where he was working at the time. “She was an intern in the human resources department,” Ted says. “I was able to angle to get her in the video with me so I could meet her.” (Ted seems unconcerned about that admission of using his public position for private gain.)
Both the Barrons and the Groomers say they work hard to avoid arguments. In fact, that seems to be a common thread among family members working together in local government. “It’s certainly different working with a member of your own family,” says Green Island’s McNulty. “Maybe you work a little harder at getting along.”