SOUTH SALT LAKE — Allegations of nepotism have created a rift between the South Salt Lake City Council and Mayor Cherie Wood.
Claiming they've heard complaints from city employees and residents because five relatives of the mayor — two brothers, a sister-in-law and two sons — currently work for the city, the City Council last week voted to strengthen South Salt Lake's nepotism law.
"The public trusts us that we will not be using our positions for personal gain," City Councilman Shane Siwik said. "For me, nepotism is a serious issue. Nobody wants to have their government run by the same family."
But Monday, Wood vetoed the new ordinance, arguing it was rushed, violates state law and puts employee privacy at risk.
The mayor also accused council members of politically attacking her, "scandalizing" her family and spreading unsubstantiated allegations.
"It's a shame the council is doing this," Wood said in an interview this week. "They were on a witch hunt that night."
The new law would have prohibited any relative of an appointed or elected officer, or a relative's spouse, to be employed by the city. The city's current law — which duplicates Utah code — prohibits direct hires or supervision of a relative or spouse.
Since Wood's relatives were hired by other department directors, their employments are legal.
But City Council Chairwoman Debbie Snow said last week's ordinance proposal was prompted by a "public perception problem" sparked by Wood having five family members who work in various South Salt Lake departments — four of whom were hired after Wood took office in 2010.
"People are complaining, both (residents) and fellow employees," Snow said. "The perception is there, and I think it's building distrust in our government."
There's South Salt Lake police officer Christopher Taylor, Wood's brother, who was hired in 2015. He earned $70,790 in salary and benefits in fiscal year 2016.
Woods' sister-in-law, Julie Taylor, was hired in 2012 to work as a business licence coordinator. Last year, she was promoted to work in the mayor's office as special projects coordinator, earning about $66,000 in salary and benefits.
Wood's other brother, Jason Taylor, works as water division manager, but he was hired nearly 20 years ago, Wood said. He earned $111,375 in salary and benefits this year.
Two of Wood's sons, 16 and 17, also work part-time for the city's after-school youth program, Promise South Salt Lake. Together, they earned about $10,672 during the 2016 fiscal year.
"I have heard disgruntled employees who have said these relatives of the mayor are getting special favors, special treatment, raises, all sorts of different stuff, or if they screw up they don't get in trouble," Councilman Kevin Rapp said during a meeting Wednesday.
Wood, however, said those allegations were unfounded, pointing out that there have been no formal complaints submitted to the city's human resources department or the city attorney.
The mayor said none of her family members are receiving any special treatment, and they were only hired because they were qualified for the job.
"We know just by the nature of them working there that we are under a microscope," the mayor said. "Quite frankly, they work twice as hard because they know that."
Wood added that many of her siblings have sought jobs with South Salt Lake because their mother, who worked in the city's administrative office 30 years ago, raised them to be involved in the community.
"They're coming to work to better this community, not to get away with anything," Wood said. "I hope my family will stop being penalized for caring about South Salt Lake."
The mayor said her family has nothing to do with why she vetoed the ordinance. She pointed out that one of its subsections — which would require employees to report their relationship to human resources if they're a relative of an elected or appointed official — would clash with Utah code, which prohibits city councils from publicly or privately giving orders to a subordinate of the mayor.
Wood also said the ordinance was too rushed because the council suspended the rules to get it passed the day it was proposed. She also said the ordinance lacked vetting to iron out its issues.
Among several other issues the mayor listed as reasons for her veto, Wood said the ordinance would "discriminate" against qualified job applicants based on their familial association with current employees. The city attorney also informed her it may violate an employee's right of privacy, the mayor said.
Wood also called the ordinance a "politically motivated" attempt to attack her, saying the council is still sour over her veto earlier this year of its plan to develop the old Granite High School into a new neighborhood and a Wal-Mart — a plan she said wasn't well-received by her constituents.
But Snow said the ordinance "had nothing to do" with the council's history with the mayor. It only "reflects a desire to institute good governance policy," she said.
Snow added that it's not surprising that no formal complaints have been submitted to the city.17 comments on this story
"There are a lot of people who would not be comfortable putting their names on a formal complaint, but have instead chosen to complain to City Council members," she said. "We listen to our constituents' complaints, and if there is any basis or merit, we try to address it."
Snow said she will try to work with Wood to address technical issues with the ordinance to have a revised version prepared for the council's next meeting on Oct. 26.