Our View: Legislation, policy can follow Rubin hiring

Jim Gottschald knows how it looked this winter when elected St. Louis County Attorney Mark Rubin hired his son as a prosecutor over experienced applicants and without conducting any interviews.

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Cameron Cardow/Cagle Cartoons

Jim Gottschald knows how it looked this winter when elected St. Louis County Attorney Mark Rubin hired his son as a prosecutor over experienced applicants and without conducting any interviews.

"People see a one-off instance like that and have a presumption that this is standard practice or (the) operating procedure in St. Louis County. It is not," Gottschald, the county's human resources director, stressed in an interview last week with the News Tribune Editorial Board. "By law, we have a competitive process for filling vacancies - all vacancies - in the classified service."

The key four words there: "in the classified service." That's where most, about 95 percent, of St. Louis County's approximately 1,850 employees fall: under classified civil service hiring laws that require at least seven leading candidates to be interviewed and all candidates to be considered fairly. The law dates back to 1941, and the county is working with lawmakers this session to require even more finalists for jobs to even better ensure that the best employees are being hired for the public good.

Rubin's son's job, however, is one of about 90 "unclassified" positions in St. Louis County to which more lax hiring rules apply. In addition to assistant county attorneys, unclassified county employees include bailiffs, an undersheriff, department heads, and the elected County Board members.

The Legislature can take action, Gottschald said - and County Board members and others in St. Louis County, whether they're tired of addressing constituent concerns about Rubin's hiring or not, can call on lawmakers to do so - to shift unclassified positions, including assistant county attorneys, to classified. Such legislation would apply to county attorneys' offices statewide.


In addition, St. Louis County Board members can adopt a nepotism policy that they put off for nearly a month after it was presented to them on March 5. The new policy wouldn't - and can't without the state action - address unclassified positions. But it could help to eliminate perceived conflicts of interest in hiring. And it could "demonstrate our commitment to ensuring that we are employing a diverse workforce," as Gottschald said.

"People are not getting (county) jobs because of who they know. It's based on merit and qualifications," he said. "The situation with our county attorney's office is not the practice in the rest of St. Louis County. ... This doesn't happen in mainstream St. Louis County. ... We do not want to have an immediate supervisor with that familial status."

"It's the right thing to do," Commissioner Patrick Boyle said of passing the nepotism policy. "This gives us more transparency ... on what we want to see on the hiring, firing, promotion, demotion side of things."

"(Constituents) have been asking for this," Commissioner Beth Olson said. "This should help people understand our commitment. ... That's really important, and this could garner some public trust. We heard what people were saying, and we wanted to be responsive to it. I get it."

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 handpicking employees without actively considering all who are qualified, even if it's not forbidden by law or policy, can encourage cronyism, and that can lead to exclusion and missing out on the best employees. It also can lead to a good-ol'-boys reputation that the county had been working to shed.

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.

A nepotism policy and legislative action can't fix all this. But they'd be a good start.

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