A Mercer County mayor has entered into a conciliation agreement with the state Ethics Commission for violating Ethics Act prohibitions on nepotism by employing her granddaughter as a part-time receptionist in town hall.
Bramwell Mayor Louise Stoker agreed to undergo ethics training, but was not fined or publicly reprimanded under the agreement approved by the Ethics Commission Thursday.
The agreement notes the mayor was unaware that changes in ethics rules had put her in violation of the law.
According to the agreement, when Stoker hired her granddaughter in March 2014 as a part-time receptionist at $8 an hour, grandchildren were not listed as direct family members under the nepotism prohibition. Stoker’s granddaughter was a part-time student at Bluefield State College at the time.
Three years later, in 2017, the Ethic Commission’s legislative rules were amended, adding grandchildren to the list of relatives that public officials are prohibited from employing under the nepotism regulations.
When an ethics compliant was filed against Stoker in July 2019, the mayor said she was unaware of the rule change and terminated her granddaughter’s employment that month.
During the five-year time period, the granddaughter — who, according to the agreement, continues to serve as a volunteer receptionist/office assistant at town hall — was paid a total of $21,058, with an hourly rate never higher than the state minimum wage.
Also Thursday, with some objections, the commission ruled that a retired city police officer running for county sheriff may feature photographs of himself in uniform in campaign materials.
That seemingly contradicts two recent commission advisory opinions barring active-duty police officers from appearing in uniform for campaign events or in campaign materials.
Those rulings concluded that appearing in uniform at campaign appearances or in campaign ads or fliers would violate the Ethics Act, since it could be interpreted to be an endorsement of the candidate by the law enforcement agency.
Commissioner Suzan Singleton raised that issue, noting, “His uniform and all the equipment belongs to the requester’s former employer. I understand that he’s retired, but I have a problem with this one.”
However, commission general counsel Kim Weber said the Ethics Act does not apply to retired public employees or officials.
“The bottom line is, the Ethics Commission does not have jurisdiction over former public employees,” she said.
The requester is currently employed as a city building inspector, but commissioners concluded that was immaterial to the issue.
Commissioners approved the advisory opinion on a 7-2 vote, with commissioners Singleton and Terry Walker voting no.
Also Thursday, the commission:
- Approved combining commission guidelines for public employee recognition and retirement into a single, revised guideline.
The guideline clarifies that public agencies may spend up to $25 of public funds per employee per fiscal year on employee recognition events, and that the funds may be spent on refreshments, meals or mementos.
The revised guideline states the public funding may also be used to purchase plaques or other commemorative items for retiring public employees. The guideline had previously established that up to $100 of public funds may be used to offset costs of such items for each retiring public employee.
- Was advised by commission executive director Rebecca Stepto that ethics complaints have dropped off sharply during the shutdown of many government offices during the pandemic, with only one complaint filed in the past month.
Calls to the Ethics Commission also dropped off significantly in March and April, compared to prior months, she said. Stepto said many of the calls have involved inquiries about state Open Meetings Act requirements for public meetings that are conducted telephonically or using video conferencing technologies.