published Sunday, October 17th, 2010

Family ties bind county offices


by Dan Whisenhunt

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.

County policy

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.

Other offices

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.

about Dan Whisenhunt...

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 ...

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Comments do not represent the opinions of the Chattanooga Times Free Press, nor does it review every comment. Profanities, slurs and libelous remarks are prohibited. For more information you can view our Terms & Conditions and/or Ethics policy.
anonymight said...

This nepotism thing has got to be stopped. I saw a worktruck going down the road today and it said "Jones and Son Plumbing." I think the grandpa was a plumber too. I don't care if they do do a good job. They're never touching a pipe in my house.

October 17, 2010 at 12:14 a.m.
fairmon said...

Immediate family members working in the same department is usually not good. There has never been a policy against it, elected officials didn't want to prevent favoring family members.

The deeper question is what causes family members to want to work for the county? Compare the compensation (wages, benefits and perks) of a county employee to those paid in the MSA for like or similar work. Wouldn't you prefer the over paid, over staffed, low work load, influence and security of the government position?

Citizens and business owners in the city would be better served if they petitioned the county to take the city in, absorb the necessary operations and eliminate all duplications. The county mayor and commissioners are more effective and capable than the city mayor and council. The inefficiencies in county government are less than in city operations. The city expanding to assume the county would be a catastrophic mistake.

A savings of 30% to all tax payers, city and county, would be a conservative estimate.

County and city police and fire departments should be fully staffed, fully trained, well equipped and well paid. Several clerical and administrative positions, some of them not essential, are paid more than police and fire personnel. Citizens should insist on the best for and from police and fire personnel.

October 17, 2010 at 5:55 a.m.
rosebud said...

Yes, the TFP's investigative "whiz" continues his full-throttle attack on Bill Knowles. Wow, all this corruption. I'll bet if this guy's name was on the ballot, he'd be in trouble.

Oh wait....it was on the ballot a couple of months ago, and he got 70 percent of the vote. Too bad all this scandalous information didn't come out until later. If the public had known, I'll bet Knowles would have only gotten 69 percent.

October 17, 2010 at 8:02 a.m.
dave said...

How can we have a fair election with one family dominating the election administration process? Make one incumbent angry and the whole family could lose their jobs. It seems to me that this is not a random thing of just hiring the best people for the best jobs...lessee...we have one Knowles running things, one "repairing" the voting machines, and one in charge of the records archives(so no one can discover anything later). a pretty sweet set-up to me. Rotten Tennessee politics as usual (or the spirit of Bookie Turner lives on).

October 17, 2010 at 8:40 a.m.
fairmon said...

rosebud, what in the article is not factual? How can merely reporting facts of interest to the general public be viewed as an attack? If you didn't notice Mr. Knowles provided the facts in the article.

Do you think the nepotism is OK or not OK is the theme? But, as noted in my prior post there are issues and root cause questions that could be addressed around this subject.

October 17, 2010 at 10:16 a.m.
Allison12 said...

Our local governmnets are corrupt. For too long, the TFP has reported glossed stories, and public corruption has been unchecked. The Knowles clan dominating high managment positions in the Clerks Office, Election Commission, and in Public Works, speakes to corruption in the hiring process. The notion that the family members were the most qualified is pure crap. This swamp has to be drained in both County and City government. From Jim Hammond hiring his son as a consultant to County Public Works managers having Knowles has their last name as a job requirement. This has to stop.

October 17, 2010 at 1:17 p.m.
Allison12 said...

Mr. Whisenhunt AWESOME investigative work. Keep up the great job that public needs to know what is really going on in County .gov

October 17, 2010 at 1:19 p.m.
fairmon said...

Allison12

Corrupt is a strong word and I have no proof of that. Poorly managed and loosely run is evident and visible especially in the city government. It is a rich country club style management that assesses the members if they have some special project they want to pursue.

I am not saying there is not corruption just that none has been investigated or proven since Cotton's conviction. I do agree the TFP provides an excellent service and provides much more detail and facts than the less than 20 second sound bites on TV.

A good investigative newsprint journalist is a valuable resource that is far too scarce. I do hope the TFP can compensate them well and add to the number. I do believe they could increase their circulation significantly as they expanded their scope of coverage and investigations.

October 17, 2010 at 1:40 p.m.
Allison12 said...

Harp3339 That is right that is what I said, "corrpuption." The fact that the entire Knowles family is upper management in 3 County and taxpayer funded agencies, coupled with running a "ministry" or non profit on taxpayer County time. That ministry generated $157,000 in income for the Knowles son on taxpayer funded time. Yes, that is public corruption every day of the week. I realize Tennessee is listed as #5 nationally in public corruption, but Chattanooga and Memphis are the Mecca, and the public shoul not tolerate, businesses run on the taxpayer dime, and families have a strong hold on hiring. Our local government is inbreed and run by families.

October 17, 2010 at 2:15 p.m.
syx478 said...

I agree, this is some "solid" investigative reporting. A quick look at our State Code would reveal the states policy on nepotism.

2010 Tennessee Code Title 8 - Public Officers And Employees Chapter 31 - Uniform Nepotism Policy 8-31-103 - Direct supervision of relatives prohibited.

Within each governmental entity, no state employees who are relatives shall be placed within the same direct line of supervision whereby one (1) relative is responsible for supervising the job performance or work activities of another relative; provided, that to the extent possible, the provisions of this chapter shall not be construed to prohibit two (2) or more such relatives from working within the same state governmental entity.

[Acts 1980, ch. 789, § 3.]

This policy does not appear to be violated in any of these instances. If you have a problem with the policy, you should write your state legislator. Unless they too are corrupted.

Also, many human resource strategies suggest that businesses primary source of recruitment should be employee referrals. It presents many strategic advantages.

This paper is just strange.

October 17, 2010 at 4:03 p.m.
Allison12 said...

Are you suggesting that the families or clans that occupy 4 agencies of County governemnt's upper to mid management should continue to expand? Nepostism is not good for gov anyway you dice it. Yes, I have a problems with 2 to 3 families running our local gov.

October 17, 2010 at 4:38 p.m.
jackson0170 said...

Allison12, You sound like you have something personal with the Knowles family. Maybe you or someone you know may have applied for a certain position and got denied or turned away for not having the proper "knowledge" or "experience" that the person who was right or IS right for position acquired. The man or woman who upholds a specific title or placement in the workforce HAS to have knowledge and wisdom in that particular area and KNOW what they are doing. By having a certain last name can not and does not allow you to be intelligent.If the last name happens to be Smith,Clark,or Knowles, It would be almost positive that other employees or someone "higher" up would bring it to attention if the worker was not performing the job properly that they were hired and are paid to do. A lot of people get or have jobs these days based on who they know. I am sure there are a number of readers who have negative comments to say about the Knowles family can relate and either themselves or someone they know has more than likely had a job before based off the same situation. It is how well the individual can live up to their title, not their last name.The Knowles family is outstanding and a family I and many others respect.

October 17, 2010 at 4:42 p.m.
Allison12 said...

Never met a Knowles in my 42 years in Chattanooga. Do all citizen transactions by mail, and do not run a County funded ministry from my real job. Bottom line, I do not want 2 or 3 families running and having a monopoly on our local gov. Not good for gov or the citizens.

October 17, 2010 at 5 p.m.
Allison12 said...

@jackson0170 Clearly, your last comment "Knowles family is outstanding" speaks to your own bias and lack of objectivity in the real issue of the "families" that run County government.

October 17, 2010 at 5:57 p.m.
syx478 said...

Allison, you do all your transactions by mail? How convenient. Did you know Mr. Knowles created the States tag-renewal by mail program?

www.electknowles.com/

You make little sense. An employee sends a handful of emails and you consider his business "county funded"? I do not know what your e-mail account looks like, but I have personal emails in mine. I do not feel like I should be unemployed

October 17, 2010 at 6:01 p.m.
Allison12 said...

syx478 I do not dispute that the Knowles may be fine people. That is beside the point. Really, you make little sense. The issue is that taxpayers aer not served by 2 or 3 families having a monopoly on County government operations. I would like to see a list of all employees in County general government, and determine which clan they are from. This is a terrible situation. It is not personal for me, I am a taxpayer, and object to these two families having a monopoly in County governmnet. It is just that simple.

October 17, 2010 at 6:35 p.m.
fairmon said...

See post at 5;55 A.M. which is still applicable. I agree no state law appears to be violated and the law seems adequate.

Any employer with as many employees as the county will often have several family members employed. Why would they not hire the relative or off spring of an employee that had done a good job for several years? They usually do not allow direct supervision of another family member.

October 17, 2010 at 7:03 p.m.
shad0wz said...

I'm trying to figure out what Allison is even talking about. The county has over 70 departments and employs hundreds of people. We're talking about 8-10 people here. Hardly what I would call a monopoly. Besides, anyone who knows anything about politics in Hamilton County has heard of the Knowles family and their years of service to this area. Everybody loves to scream about how corrupt the government is but enjoys the excellent clerk services and fair elections in this county. Give me a break.

October 17, 2010 at 9:17 p.m.
lawandorder said...

Eighteen comments logged... seven from one user... disgruntled former employee?

The attacks by an out-of-state reporter and the comments of a few about a family who has served our community faithfully through the years are inconceivable. Consider this: is everything you read in CTFP true? Or maybe truth with a little twist to create a sizzle. Other local media, including CTFP's media partner, have stepped back from CTFP's campaign of inflammatory reporting against this family.

It appears that the new direction at the CTFP is create distrust and divide a community in an attempt to increase circulation.

Admittedly, conjecture on my part.

October 18, 2010 at 1:55 a.m.

While reading the latest Times Free Press article attacking the Knowles family, I had to stop and check the newspaper’s name several times. I was embarrassed that our own newspaper had degraded educated journalism into a shallow excuse for the National Enquirer. Could they have really printed such an obviously biased and negative article? Perhaps this journalist neglected to remember the first lesson in true journalism-an objective standpoint, clearly explaining essentials, not gossip. I’m embarrassed that our own newspaper allowed personal conflicts to float over facts.

So, what are the facts? Opinion aside, Tennessee is a state known for its originality, hospitality, and congeniality, not slander and hate, as portrayed in this article. It takes individuals to make up our state, our counties, and our cities to develop our reputations. This article attempted to give the Knowles family a negative reputation, but what REAL crimes were committed? Again, let’s talk facts. NONE. The Knowles family has embraced integrity and efficiency for many years, utilizing their passions to serve the community. Do not forget the true definition of a public servant.

If I were in the place of Bill Knowles, I would hold my head high and with honor. His relatives chose to follow in his admirable footsteps to serve Hamilton County and make it a better place for every citizen. We are a product of the influences we choose, and we cannot judge the worthy paths his relatives have chosen. They have all proven their expansive knowledge, and fulfilled their job duties to the best of their ability. If we were to search through each employee’s inbox at the TFP, I am sure we would discover far worse than e-mails sent for a non-profit organization. In fact, a quick delve into our so-called investigative reporter’s inbox would surely pull up e-mails of personal interest. Or maybe he has even used company time to call or send a text to someone… Surely not!

While city and county paid salaries are open to public, it was insulting to list only the salaries of those of Knowles descent. If the article was intended to state a compensation problem or a “family” monopoly, other examples, such as additional salaries and employees, should have been displayed to maintain an accurate comparison.

I have great respect for the Knowles family, and it is my hope that Tennessee citizens will see the truth, instead of a blatant, unwarranted attack.

October 21, 2010 at 11:42 p.m.
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