Three generations of the Knowles family now work in Hamilton County government.
The family's decades-old involvement in county government was widely known but rarely discussed before County Clerk Bill Knowles' two sons, both county employees, acknowledged using county e-mail for a side business. One son's work on that business during county work hours resulted in a five-day unpaid suspension.
There are eight relatives of Bill Knowles and his late brother Bud, the former Hamilton County elections administrator, on the county payroll: three in the County Clerk's office, two in the Election Commission office and one each in Public Works, the Trustee's Office and the Human Services Division.
In all, the family earns more than $500,000 annually from the county.
KNOWLES RELATIVES ON PUBLIC PAYROLL
* Finley Knowles, chief administrative deputy, County Clerk (Bill Knowles' son). 2010 salary: $82,281
* Brett Kunselman, utility and mail specialist, County Clerk (Bill Knowles' grandson). 2010 salary: $30,833
* Don Kunselman, director of inventory controls, County Clerk (Bill Knowles' son-in-law). 2010 salary: $59,190
* Alan Knowles, superintendent of support services, Public Works (Bill Knowles' son). 2010 salary: $64,555
* Michael Scott Allen, chief deputy, Election Commission (Bud Knowles' grandson). 2010 salary: $60,980
* Tyrone Jacobs, warehouse and records employee, Election Commission, (Bud Knowles' granddaughter's husband) 2009 salary: $27,000
* Susan Bedwell, chief of staff, Trustee's Office, (Bill Knowles' niece) 2009 salary: $77,961
* Michael T. Bedwell, maintenance tech, Human Services Division, (Susan Bedwell's son) 2009 salary: $25,695
Source: Bill Knowles, Election Commission, Hamilton County Trustee's Office
It's legal because Tennessee has no law banning county officials from hiring relatives for taxpayer-funded jobs, though parts of Hamilton County government have policies against the practice.
Two of Bill Knowles' three children work in county government.
Knowles, who was first elected in 1974 and now earns $100,772 a year, said he did not use his influence to get his relatives jobs in other offices. He said the family members he hired are qualified for their positions.
"After 30 years and hundreds of people working in my office, this is just the way it shakes up," Knowles said.
Knowles also employs or has employed at least six people in his office who are related to one another: Carl and Dolores Burns, Michael and Matt Clark, and Jeff and Paul Mattheiss. Paul Mattheiss no longer works at the Clerk's Office.
Knowles said all available positions in the clerk's office were advertised in the newspaper.
Tennessee law doesn't prohibit nepotism, but a recent manual from the University of Tennessee County Technical Assistance Service advises against county officials and supervisors hiring relatives.
"It is possible that there are some instances in which it could cause a conflict of interest, particularly where the relatives commingle their assets," the manual states. "It also is easy to see how relatives supervising other relatives could cause management problems in the workplace, and many county offices have adopted policies against this."
In the case of the Knowles brothers, Alan Knowles, a Public Works employee, acknowledged using work time and the county e-mail system in operating nonprofit Christian concert promoter Dove Ministries Inc. His boss, Hamilton County Mayor Claude Ramsey, suspended him for five days without pay.
Finley Knowles, chief administrative deputy for his father, Bill Knowles and a Dove Ministries Inc. board member, received and sent some Dove-related e-mail on his county account. He was cautioned about his behavior, but the Clerk's Office determined he had not violated office policy.
Robin Roberts, CTAS administrator of field services, said a relative could be the most qualified person for a government job.
"I know in several cases I've experienced personally, those family members were some of the best employees they have in the whole department," Roberts said. "I would hate to think you would prohibit someone from hiring the best person because they're related."
Hamilton County Elections Administrator Charlotte Mullis-Morgan said that's the case with the late Bud Knowles' grandson, Michael Scott Allen, her chief deputy.
"I asked Bud to rehire Scott because of his expertise with voting machines," she said. "We needed Scott. We needed his expertise."
Tyrone Jacobs married Knowles' granddaughter after he started working at the Election Commission, Mullis-Morgan said.
The offices of Hamilton County general government under Ramsey adopted an updated nepotism policy July 21, Human Resources Director Rebecca Hunter said.
The Election Commission voted last year to come under the policy, and the Assessor of Property, the Juvenile Court Judge and the Juvenile Court Clerk also have adopted it.
The policy bans the hiring of immediate relatives within departments and forbids relatives from supervising relatives without a written exception from Ramsey or an administrator.
Hunter said the county has not approved any exceptions so far, and she didn't know how many exceptions were approved before the policy was updated because they weren't documented.
But some other Hamilton County offices without the policy said they are following it informally, saying hiring relatives is a bad practice.
Lee Akers, the county clerk and master, said he typically does not hire relatives, though he once employed his former son-in-law for a temporary job. He said one employee married another and that twin sisters once worked in his office.
"I would love to be able to put my daughter to work, but I don't know that I'd want her working for me simply because that's too close to home," Akers said.
Register of Deeds Pam Hurst said her office's policy against hiring relatives is not written down, but it's understood.
"That doesn't work well within an office," Hurst said. "It may work against your staff being upbeat and working for you. It may work against you as keeping the office as a team."
County Trustee Bill Hullander, who took office Sept. 1, said a longtime office employee is a Knowles family member but he doesn't know of any office workers who are related to each other. He said he is reviewing all the office's policies.
Sheriff Jim Hammond said his son Jimmy works part time in the sheriff's information technology department. He said he considered a ban on hiring relatives of department employees but realized it would be harmful. He said there are many families in law enforcement.
"There [is] a long tradition of police officers of fathers having their sons or daughters following them into work," Hammond said.
Bill Knowles did not want to talk about his hiring practices at length, although he provided records on his employees and their salaries.
"We've got a good family, and I'm proud of our family," he said.
Dan Whisenhunt covers Hamilton County government for the Times Free Press. A native of Mobile, Ala., Dan earned a degree in broadcast journalism from the University of Alabama. He won first place for best in-depth news coverage in the 2010 Alabama Press Association contest; the FOI-First Amendment Award in the 2007 Alabama Press Association contest; first place for best public service story in the Alabama AP Managing Editors contest in 2009 for economic coverage; and ...