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Our View: County needs to consider hiring policies

The news this month that St. Louis County Attorney Mark Rubin hired his son to work in his Duluth office -- without even interviewing any other candidate -- prompted immediate questions and concerns, including: St. Louis County doesn't have an an...

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Cameron Cardow/Cagle Cartoons

The news this month that St. Louis County Attorney Mark Rubin hired his son to work in his Duluth office - without even interviewing any other candidate - prompted immediate questions and concerns, including: St. Louis County doesn't have an anti-nepotism policy?

Rubin's response to the criticism he received can prompt county leaders to now give serious consideration to policies and rules that dictate how county workers are selected, to ensure there is fairness and inclusion in hiring decisions.

By all accounts, Rubin has done an excellent job as the county's elected top attorney. He is well-regarded. His service can be appreciated.

But nepotism and hand-picking employees without actively considering all who are qualified can equal cronyism, which can lead to exclusion. Rubin's hire of his son recalls the county's reputation just a few years back as a good-ol'-boys club.

Anything short of an open process in hiring leaves taxpayers, the ones footing the bills and covering the salaries, without the ability to know whether the best public employees are the ones being chosen and whether a diversity of qualified candidates is being considered.

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Rubin told a News Tribune reporter that the hiring of family members or others without following a thorough selection process is the norm in private practice. That may be, but the county attorney's office is not a private firm and the public can be shortchanged when it's run like one. The county attorney's office answers to the people - all the people. A private firm answers to its shareholders or owners.

In a News Tribune story - as well as in a written statement to the News Tribune Opinion page in response to a request for an interview or comment - Rubin pointed out that no county or state policy prohibits hiring family members. He correctly stated that by hiring his son he didn't violate any rules or laws.

"By State statute, once the County Board gives its consent to fund the position of an Assistant, the County Attorney is the sole hiring authority, subject to the starting salary being approved by (human resources)," Rubin said in his statement to the Opinion page. "The County Human Resources Selection Process policy applies only to civil service and classified positions and does not apply to the hiring/appointing of Assistant County Attorneys. Further, there is no policy that prohibits the hiring of a family member. If there was, obviously I would have followed the policy."

During his eight years as county attorney, Rubin said he has hired or appointed 26 unclassified assistants or investigators.

"I am extremely proud of the quality of people I have brought on board to help me serve the public," he wrote. "Almost a quarter of the hires/appointments never went through a full, formal competitive interview process. This practice has been utilized by all three of my predecessors (former County Attorneys Al Mitchell, Melanie Ford, and Keith Brownell) ... with one I recall who hired a family member for a Victim/Witness Investigator position."

Rubin himself was hired in this manner, he said. Brownell added him in 1978 when he was straight out of law school. He was hired "without a formal posting and interview process," Rubin stated. "I was a known commodity having interned in the office as a St. Scholastica student in 1975. This was also how I was re-hired in 1990."

How something always has been done isn't necessarily a strong argument for continuing in the same way. Many of the hires Rubin pointed to escaped public or media notice when they happened, even when they were outside of usual selection-process practices.

The high-profile hiring by Rubin of his son, on the other hand, brings to the fore the county's hiring processes and whether they're fair in all instances, as well as the county's lack of a policy regarding nepotism. The moment can be seized as an opportunity by county leaders to immediately give serious consideration to how county employees are put on the public payroll.

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County residents, all of us, deserve the assurance that our public employees are being picked fairly and that the best qualified candidates - always - are being considered.

Did that happen when Rubin hired his son this month without interviewing other candidates? Unfortunately, as equity and inclusion expert Kevin Skwira-Brown of Duluth wrote in an op-ed in Sunday's News Tribune, "We may never know."

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