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Columbia County HHS director finalist named, questions arise regarding nepotism
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Columbia County HHS director finalist named, questions arise regarding nepotism

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August 2018 -- HHS ribbon cutting (copy)

County supervisors, employees and citizens join Columbia County Board Chairman Vern Gove in the ribbon-cutting ceremony dedicating the new Health and Human Services building at 111 E. Mullett St. in this Daily Register archive photo. Just to the right of Gove is former HHS Director Dawn Woodard.

The hiring committee searching for Columbia County’s new Health and Human Services director has made a recommendation that will go to its first vote later this month.

Heather Gove, a licensed professional counselor in Portage, is the committee’s recommendation to fill the position, which has been temporarily filled by Katie Day since January.

The position was left vacant after former director Dawn Woodard resigned at the beginning of the year after being placed on administrative leave, with an investigation of the department pending. No results of an investigation were ever released and county officials have refused to say what spurred the investigation.

Open records requests about the matter filed by the Daily Register were denied.

Heather Gove is the daughter-in-law of county board Chairman Vern Gove, of Portage. Supervision of the HHS director position potentially raises questions of nepotism, with Columbia County Corporation Counsel Joe Ruf stating, “in the specific case of the HHS Director, Code of Ordinances secs. 11-6-4 and 11-6-5 establish that the HHS director is supervised by the HHS Board and the County Board.”

The county’s code of ethics policy on nepotism states that “no person shall be employed, promoted or transferred to any department, division, or work unit when, as a result, the employee would be directly supervising or receiving direct supervision from a related person.”

The policy goes on to specifically define related persons as including in-laws.

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“It is not a violation of the county code of ethics for Heather Gove to be employed as county HHS director while her father-in-law is county board chair,” said Ruf. “In situations where county board supervisors, including the county board chair have potential conflicts of interest, our office advises those board supervisors not to participate in discussions and to abstain from voting.”

Ruf said Vern Gove did not participate in the hiring process for the position, instead handing leadership of the hiring process to the county board’s first vice chair, James Foley, of Arlington.

“Chair Gove did not participate in any part of the HHS director hiring process, to prevent any potential conflict of interest,” said Ruf. “When the HHS director election comes to the county board, I anticipate that Chair Gove will not participate in any discussions and will abstain from voting.”

Vern Gove did not return calls for comment.

Claire Silverman legal counsel with the Wisconsin League of Municipalities, a legal resource and advocacy group for local elected officials and governing bodies, said the organization advises against nepotism, but generally agreed that the related person abstaining from voting or discussing matters involving the employee should be sufficient to avoid a violation.

The other named finalist for the position was Jessica Gilbert, the county’s behavior health program coordinator.

Other finalists were not named, with Ruf stating, “other applicants for the HHS director position made written requests that the county not reveal their identities. The county is honoring those requests.”

The HHS board will vote on the hiring committee’s recommendation at its Sept. 9 meeting. The final hiring decision will then go for a vote by the full county board at its Sept. 16 meeting.

Follow Nicole on Twitter @Nicole_Aimone

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