Grays Harbor County Commissioner Terry Willis personally interviewed and then hired her granddaughter for a summer jobs program in the county’s Road Department earlier this year.
The Daily World received multiple tips about the situation, accusing the incumbent commissioner of nepotism — showing favoritism toward her granddaughter. Willis said she’s had one person make those accusations directly to her.
“It’s a perfect, worthwhile accusation,” Willis said. “But if I had kicked my granddaughter out and told her I wasn’t going to take her application, I would have been just as discriminatory because she was related to me. It works both ways. If I had held it against an employee’s son because his dad works here, how wrong would that have been?
“… I was not going to hold it against her because she’s related to me,” she added. “I’m related to a lot of people in Grays Harbor County.”
Though individual department heads make decisions on full-time hires, summer hires are decided on by the commissioners. All three county commissioners said this is simply the way it’s always been done.
County Commissioners Willis and Mike Wilson each hired three people. County Commissioner Herb Welch hired two.
Welch said he did not personally know the two people he hired. Willis said of the three candidates, she only personally knew her granddaughter.
Wilson said he had a personal relationship with the families of two of the three hires. One was the son of a personal friend and another was a daughter of a friend who recently worked on his re-election campaign. Wilson said both hires submitted applications like everyone else and no special favors were awarded.
Neither Welch nor Wilson said they were aware that Willis had hired her granddaughter.
“In all of my years as an elected official, I will say that my son has never benefited from this job in any kind of summer job,” Wilson said, declining to speculate on if Willis acted appropriately.
In April, the county commissioners authorized the hiring of eight new seasonal employees for the summer with the stipulation that college-age applicants be given the first crack at the jobs, which has become custom. Two seasonal employees were hired to help in Solid Waste, one in Engineering, and five in the road shops around the county. Of the eight employees, county payroll records show that one of the workers quit after about four days.
The granddaughter was supposed to work in the County Roads Department as a flagger. However, because she was 17 years old, she was not old enough to receive certification for the job. She would have needed to be 18 to get a flagger’s card. As a result, a desk position was created for her within the Roads division. County Road Engineer Russ Esses confirmed the situation.
Esses said she is scanning documents and handling paperwork.
“She’s doing an excellent job and performing duties that really do need to get done,” Esses said.
Willis said she wasn’t aware that a specific position was created for her granddaughter. She said she did ask staff if there would be any problems hiring a female or hiring someone who is 17, and no one objected.
The positions pay $10 per hour and could last up to five months. However, sometimes summer employment can eventually lead to a full-time county job. Esses said he started out as a summer hire more than 30 years ago.
Esses said he usually has the summer help work as flaggers, place traffic counters across roads and bridges, check on culverts, run equipment and fill in for full-time employees on vacation.
Willis said the program serves as an important avenue for young people coming back from college or just about to head there. She notes that the county’s union asked the commissioners to consider bringing back laid-off employees just for the summer, but she rejected that idea.
“This fills a particular need for the community because we’ve got kids coming back from college who need to go back to work and many of them showed up long after the kids are out of high school,” Willis said. “We’re able to hold summer jobs open until they get here.”
After reviewing 10 to 12 applicants and conducting interviews, Willis selected her granddaughter as one of her three hires for the county.
Willis said her granddaughter received good grades in high school, was involved in student government and extra-curricular activities.
“And I asked her the same tough questions I ask everyone else,” Willis said. ” ‘Why do you want the job? Where are you going with this in the future? Are you going to be in school in the fall?’ … She’s very smart, very driven, very responsible and has a financial need and out-qualified the rest of the kids.”
Willis said she didn’t consider having another commissioner conduct the interview because each commissioner was responsible for hiring applicants from within their own commission districts. She said she was treating her granddaughter’s application like any other application she received.
The application process was done exclusively by word of mouth. The county does not advertise for the summer positions, according to county Human Resources Director Marilyn Lewis, noting the jobs are picked exclusively by the county commissioners. If it were a full-time position, the position would be advertised in The Vidette, on WorkSource’s website, sometimes in The Olympian and The Daily World or elsewhere, she said.
Willis said she told her granddaughter about the job, adding that she was unaware that the jobs aren’t advertised. Welch said he had very few applicants.
“I’d like to work more directly with the local high schools or the college to let them know this opportunity is available,” Welch said. “We need to advertise this more.”
“It’s interesting how different people’s perceptions vary on whether this was the right thing to do,” added Welch, noting he’d feel “very uncomfortable” hiring one of his own grandchildren.
“If it were me, I would have handed the job application over to one of the other commissioners to decide,” he said. “The county has a policy that you cannot work under a relative who is a decision-maker, so I don’t know if a decision-maker can hire a relative. I don’t know how that works.”
It’s unusual for the county commissioners to directly hire line crew. Typically, Esses is responsible for hiring his own employees. So, why do the commissioners weigh in on summer help?
“Whether the commissioners should be doing this or not is a hell of a question,” Welch said.
“This is just another responsibility of the job,” Wilson said.