This post is not about Irvine Council member Christina Shea’s granddaughter. It is not about her council executive assistant Jessica Wu. It is about the ethics of an elected official using a staff member to perform a personal service which is, in this case, babysitting.
Ms. Shea has custody on one of her granddaughters. The reason why and the name of the child are irrelevant to this post. The kid is lucky to have a loving grandparent to care for her. This child occasionally comes to City Hall during city council meetings where Shea purchases food for her. The child does her homework and keeps company with Ms. Wu, who is paid by Shea for babysitting out of Shea’s personal funds.
Wu is one of Ms. Shea’s council executive assistants. Wu’s duties, from her LinkedIn profile, include Public Relations, administrative, research and meeting preparation. She represents the councilmember at events, gives certificates, promotes Irvine by reaching out to businesses and communities, and build relationships. She handles complaints, make reports, keep records, makes photocopies, organizes the councilwoman’s schedule, manages invitations lists, and finalizes drafts of documents. She provides daily updates on issues related to the City and Orange County and researches topics on public policies, procedures, trends, and agenda items. She assists Shea in meeting preparation by participating in city business-related meetings and assists the councilwoman with memos, speaking points, quotes, and statistics. She also handles Social Media, posting event pictures and updates on Facebook and Twitter. And for this, Ms. Wu gets $27.26 an hour for part-time work.
Ms. Shea led the effort to repeal Irvine’s Living Wage ordinance which required contractors for city work bidding on contracts in excess of $100,000 to pay their workers between $13 to $15 and hour. Now, these same contractors can pay workers minimum wage. I ran into some of the volunteers getting signatures to place the Living Wage Ordinance on the Ballot for the next election and we spoke of Ms. Shea’s efforts to repeal this long standing policy. It was through one of the volunteers I learned of Ms. Wu’s “moonlighting” as a babysitter. The minimum in Irvine — about $12 an hour.
Ms. Shea confirmed her aide does babysit after a series of text messages we sent earlier this month. I asked if Wu babysat Shea’s granddaughter, and Shea said it was off limits. I asked if taxpayers were paying Wu to babysit, which Shea denied. And in the denial, Shea provided an admission. She reluctantly admitted she paid Wu to babysit.
“I must use many family and friends to help me with NAME DELETED as I am her care taker,” She wrote.
Any working parent knows the challenge of finding reliable child care; I mentioned my kid’s nanny to Shea as an example of what worked for my family. Shea must have misunderstood. She wrote: “She (Wu) isn’t a nanny. She lives next door and occasionally she or her mom help me out. I don’t pay her when I am home. They do it as kind neighbors. There are kind people in the world still. And with all the awful things Larry (Agran) did over the years by wasting so much taxpayer money you now spend your reporting time digging into my aides efforts for me and her occasional help with NAME DELETED at our meetings where, by the way, I pay for her sandwich monthly out of my minimal pay even though many nights she isn’t there.
“She (Wu) is my neighbor and friend,” Shea continued. “I pay her separately for the time NAME DELETED is at council. All approved by Sean (City Manager Sean Joyce).”
I texted a response to her earlier statement about Agran to say, “It’s not about Larry.”
Shea wrote back. “Jessica is a wonderful person. Honest and kind. Of course its about Larry. Dan, never once did you write about the taxpayers he took so much money from. Jessica has done nothing wrong.”
I replied, “I didn’t say Jessica did anything wrong.”
“No one did anything wrong nor did I,” Shea wrote. But this is where she is wrong. As an elected official, using staff to perform a personal service such as babysitting — even if that staff member is compensated by the elected official — is unethical according to a number of examples (you have to love how Larry Agran remains the white whale for Shea’s Captain Ahab).
We agree there are kind people in the world. That’s not in dispute.
Shirley Grindle, OC’s political watchdog, suggested Shea use better judgment. “The public has no way of knowing if the aide’s time is paid for by the council member or by the taxpayer,” she said. “We have no access to the aide’s timecard. Even if nothing is being done wrong, it looks like something is being done wrong. Why Shea would put herself in this position, I have no idea.”
“So what are you trying to prove? That a 65-year-old elected official trying to raise a granddaughter full time needs help twice a month? NAME DELETED likes to come in and do her homework upstairs so she can be near me and eat a sandwich I pay for though Sean said I didn’t need to but I do then NAME DELETED goes home on early nights. But I am violating taxpayers rights? What is going on Dan?”
What’s going on is a breach of ethics on the part of a long time elected official who should know better. So what’s next? Could Wu be counted on to pick up dry cleaning, cut the grass, or clean the house?
There are multiple examples, nationally, of elected officials having personal services performed by staff members.
From a story published by ICMA:
Ask or direct a staff member to do something unethical, and you place the person in an untenable position of great risk. How many will muster up the courage to challenge their supervisors?
If they do the right thing, will they face possible job loss or retribution? Or do they go along with the hope that doing so will preserve their employment?
And if the unethical conduct is later revealed, how do they know for certain that they too won’t be held accountable for their actions? Those who create ethical dilemmas for their employees demonstrate a complete failure of leadership.
How do leaders do this? The Machiavellian types take the bold approach and just order their direct reports to do things that are clearly unethical. Faced with a direct order or the opportunity to please the boss, who wouldn’t comply?
The vast majority of ethical dilemmas are created by leaders in a more subtle manner. It’s the friendly request for assistance on a personal matter.
The lack of clear communication, often accompanied by a sense of urgency to get it done, sends the tacit message to staff that it’s okay to violate a rule or policy. In this instance, to accomplish the leader’s desired outcome.
Perhaps it is a pattern of a leader’s noncompliance with organizational protocol that leaves staff with the impression that the leader is actually exempt from the rules. This can include a leader’s failure to act on information delivered to the leader by staff, and a leader’s failure to respect boundaries. Worse yet are those requests that are implicitly coercive.
- Here are just a few real-world examples for consideration:
- A New York State Supreme Court Justice was recently censured for using public resources for personal gain. The judge repeatedly had staffers pick up her child at school and then babysit either in the courthouse or at her home. She also had her office staff drive her on personal errands.
- A city manager obtained a $10,000 unsecured, below-market-rate loan from the city to use as a down payment on a home. The loan, which was not outlined in the manager’s employment agreement, was never approved by city council. When the request was submitted to finance, the check was issued. All of this was later disclosed by a district attorney’s investigation. The city attorney also had full knowledge of the loan.
- An audit of county-issued credit cards revealed numerous personal charges made by the county manager to the county card. It was a clear violation of county policy. The personal charges were hard to miss since they included doctor visits, clothing purchases at major retail outlets, and items for the home.Yet the credit card bill was paid each month, often without receipts, explanation, or reimbursement of the personal expenses.
- In a case from the past decade, the former city manager and deputy city manager of San Diego each paid $25,000 in financial penalties for their roles in misleading investors in municipal bonds. The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) charges alleged these officials and others knew the city had been intentionally underfunding its pension obligations so that it could increase pension benefits but defer the costs.
In Orange County, Supervisor Janet Nguyen was criticized for attending BoS meetings but excusing herself from time to time to nurse her newborn son. There were concerns over her staff being placed in the position of babysitting her newborn during the Board meetings, and presumably other meetings where the presence of an infant might be inappropriate.
So it begs the question, how many other mothers/grandmothers, fathers/grandfathers get to bring a child to work on a regular basis? How many get their subordinate staffers to “babysit” the kid at various times of the day?
I can certainly appreciate how hard it is to find a child care provider you can count on and trust for a son, daughter or grandchild. It’s expensive. But having a council executive assistant perform this task — sometimes for free — isn’t ethical. It’s unfair to the staffer and places her in a position where she can’t really say no. And that’s not right.
So how does a current council aide, who had previously provided child care services (sometimes for free, per Shea’s comments) in addition to their government funded service to their boss, inform said boss that they are no longer willing to babysit without fear of being fired from both jobs?