In Jeffersontown, the city’s $18 million budget is just insignificant enough, its 102-member workforce just small enough, its government leaders just powerful enough — that it’s easy to get away with stuff that would never fly in Metro Government.
The new Mayor, Bill Dieruf, didn’t really promise that he’d change the way things are done in the small city, and at least in hiring preferences, he’s not. He’s a businessman, after all. And his defense of what appears to be political favors in hiring are simply a matter of hiring the best-qualified person for the job.
There’s no ethics code on the books in J-town, no rules on nepotism. Nothing to assure diversity. That’s why you’ll have a hard time finding anyone with dark skin there, and why the women are mostly in secretarial positions. It’s like 1972 still. The City Council lost its only African-American representative when Anita Johnson decided not to run for re-election last fall. and voters promptly voted in six white guys and two white women. There are 4 African-Americans and 2 Hispanics on the 51-member police force, none in supervisory positions.
When we last checked in with the police department, outgoing Mayor Clay Foreman (who lost by a whopping 21 points) was taking care of a buddy by promoting a guy named Danny Gentry to the police command staff, without consulting Chief Rick Sanders, and demoting a Major with a spotless record (but a supporter of Dieruf), Chris McIntire.
Today is Gentry’s last day on the force. He’s likely to collect a substantial check with accumulated sick and vacation days, sort of an expected prize for retirees there. The most celebrated of those was a guy named Kim Weber, who collected about $250K from the city after he spent 29 years saving up sick and vacation time. But don’t give Weber or any of the J-town retirees a perfect attendance prize. Sources tell me standard practice is for officers to skirt the rules by putting days off together and making them up without reporting the days off.
More on Weber later.
Since taking office, Dieruf has reversed Foreman’s promotion, demoting Gentry and promoting McIntire back to his old spot as a Major at the higher pay grade. Gentry is going away with a fatter retirement thanks to Foreman’s favor. Foreman, meanwhile, applied for the City Manager’s job with the city of Hurstbourne, which instead hired Foreman crony Jim Leidgen, who Foreman replaced as J-town’s City Clerk.
But we’re just getting started.
The C-J reported on Dieruf’s first hires — William Fox, as Leidgen’s replacement: Jimmy Franconia as Public Works Director; and Debbie Hendrick as Parks and Recreation Director.
Here’s what Dieruf told the C-J: “I put people in positions who were best suited for the job. I’d never hire anyone for political reasons. I only hired them for their ability to accomplish the job and their love of the city.” I asked him about the appearances created by the new hires, and he acknowledged that the perception may be negative, but he’s excited about the quality of individuals he’s hired. He said he conducted interviews for open positions, and in fact claims that family members weren’t told that he was hiring their relatives until after the hire was done.
But as a high-placed city official told me, you don’t have to be related to somebody to get a job there, but it sure helps.
Franconia was active in Dieruf’s political campaign. Even though he has no college degree, Franconia seems qualified to do the job and has been getting atta-boys from the public for making sure the streets were cleared during recent snows. Political payback, sure, but Franconia, who owns a trucking company, seems competent.
Now to the uninitiated, the C-J’s reporting of the hiring of Debbie Hendrick might not have raised an eyebrow. But the paper left out her maiden name, Ruckriegel, and the fact that she’s the daughter of the longtime Mayor and Foreman predecessor Daniel Ruckriegel, who still serves on the City Council. Hendrick’s professional experience for running the Parks Department consisted of working in banks for 14 years.
Dieruf got animated and a bit defensive when discussing Hendrick, saying she came to him with exciting ideas and unbridled enthusiasm, that she cares about the city and is articulate and organized, that she’s volunteered for years at J-town events.
Dieruf may say it’s not a favor, but it sure doesn’t pass the smell test. I wonder if he interviewed anyone with actual experience running a Parks Department?
And Debbie’s dad? Daniel Ruckriegel can still pull in the favors. He won re-election last fall despite undergoing personal bankruptcy and losing his house near the square to foreclosure. Of course, he’s the chair of the city’s budget committee.
Which brings us to William Fox. On paper, Fox appears to be someone who might have the experience to handle running the city’s affairs as its finance manager. He’s got an MBA and spent many years with Phillip Morris International. Dieruf said that the city is lucky to get someone with Fox’s skill, that Fox had promised his wife he’d move back to town from North Carolina and is overqualified for the job.
Well, Mr. Fox happens to be the brother-in-law of long-time Council member Carol Pike, who supported Dieruf in the election. And you are welcome to one guess as to his wife’s maiden name.
There’s another piece of the puzzle involving retired police major Kim Weber. Dieruf recently filled a position — part-time code enforcement officer. Weber, who campaigned for Dieruf, got the job. And Weber, believe it or not, is Chris McIntire’s father-in-law. Remember, McIntire was promoted to Major in the police department by Dieruf.
Of course, Dieruf says Weber is perfect for the job, and that the hiring decision was done with the approval of existing employees.
It’s easy to poke fun at Dieruf for continuing to hire people with ties to his campaign or a connection to the Ruckriegel name. But it appears to me that he’s sincere in his belief that the people he’s putting in place will perform well on the job and will put his “customer-first” philosophy in place. And compared with his predecessor, J-town is much better off.