OPINION: All in the family, investigation shows a glint of Atlanta way

Tarlesha Smith will serve as the Commissioner of the Department of Human Resources for the city of Atlanta, Mayor Andre Dickens announced Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2022. (City of Atlanta)

Credit: City of Atlanta

Credit: City of Atlanta

Tarlesha Smith will serve as the Commissioner of the Department of Human Resources for the city of Atlanta, Mayor Andre Dickens announced Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2022. (City of Atlanta)

When Atlanta’s Inspector General recently released a scathing report about nepotism in the city, I shrugged.

You see, I’m from Chicago, where the late Mayor Richard J. Daley summed up the role of government when accused of helping his sons in the insurance business.

“If I can’t help my sons then they can kiss my (Irish rump),” an angry Daley responded. “If a man can’t put his arm around his sons, then what kind of a world are we living in?”

What kind of world, indeed.

In her report, Inspector General Shannon Manigault found that the daughter of Atlanta Human Resources Commissioner Tarlesha Smith needed a job, that there was not one to be had, so Smith had a position created.

The report said officials in the Solicitor’s office, where the daughter was to be placed, were not happy with the process. But no one wants to make the HR Commissioner mad. She’s a powerful person and could make work life uncomfortable.

It turns out the daughter wasn’t necessarily bad at learning her job, but the report said she was uncooperative and disrespectful to her boss and started being absent after being told she couldn’t work from home. The supervisor wanted to fire her.

Was Smith upset her daughter was apparently not up to the job? No. Instead, the report found, “the daughter was not terminated; rather, DHR initiated an investigation into the supervisor.”

Smith, whom I was told was a competent administrator, was allegedly overheard telling Deputy Commissioner Candace Kollas, “I need you to check and see why they keep (messing) with my child!”

Ultimately, that investigation recommended firing the daughter’s supervisor.

Atlanta Inspector General Shannon K. Manigault addressed the City Council with concerns that her team's investigations are being thwarted.

Credit: Atlanta city TV

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Credit: Atlanta city TV

One manager told another, “people on the level of the commissioner expect their family to be treated differently.”

After the Inspector General’s report was made public, Smith was put on leave as the city conducts yet one more investigation. It’s like an episode of “The Office,” that is, if Quentin Tarantino was directing.

The Inspector General summed it up: “A typical job seeker would not have the luxury of having a mother as the DHR commissioner where they could pick any job they wanted. ... The DHR Commissioner’s actions perpetuate a perception of an unlevel playing field and reinforces a notion that one must be ‘friends and family’ to succeed.”

Ah, the old “friends and family” system of nepotism has been discussed for years, not only in Atlanta but many other entities. I remember it coming up in a report about DeKalb schools.

There’s not anything wrong with it per se, I suppose. I had uncles who were union carpenters who helped my brother and a few cousins get into the trade. Whenever they worked for them, my uncles treated them more harshly than other carpenters and made them work harder. They weren’t going to cut them any slack.

To see how widespread the family connections were, I searched Atlanta’ ethics disclosure forms to see who has, or had, relatives working for the city. It is filled out by elected officials, board members and certain city managers.

I found that three municipal court judges, at least four city commissioners or directors, two council members and Mayor Andre Dickens have relatives who are — or have — worked for the city in the past three years.

Dickens said his daughter is a straight-A student who worked a couple summers in a part-time job in the Parks & Rec department, ”just like 5,000 other teens.”

Of the 10 or so department heads and managers mentioned in the Inspector General’s report, six of them have — or had — family members working in the city.

Kollas, the HR deputy commissioner put in charge of investigating the supervisor who wanted Smith’s daughter fired, herself has two children working for the city, one in the police department and the other in “executive offices,” according to the filings. She did not return a call for comment.

Councilwoman Andrea Boone has, according to the filing, the “spouse of a parent, sibling or child” working in the watershed department. She did not get back to me to talk about it.

All of the reports note that the persons filing them did not supervise their relatives.

Atlanta city Councilman Michael Bond speaks to the media regarding recent violence in Vine City. Community members and city leaders gather to speak and demand action on gun violence in the Vine City area. Wednesday, April 10th, 2024 (Ben Hendren for the Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Ben Hendren

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Credit: Ben Hendren

Longtime Councilman Michael Bond, who once was a city jail guard, has a child working in “executive offices” and a sister in Parks & Rec.

Bond said Atlanta is one of the largest employers in Georgia, so it’s natural that many Atlantans, including relatives of city officials, would get jobs there. He was once criticized for wanting to vote on an issue about the city jail when his brother worked there.

“The relatives I have, it was their own decision to work” for the city, Bond said. He said his father, the civil rights leader Julian Bond, “stressed that you just go to work and don’t look for favors. That you’re not better than anyone. Just do your job.”

“You can’t control if your sister or niece applies for a job and gets one.”

Former Mayor Andrew Young said government jobs have allowed a couple generations of Black Atlantans to move into a middle-class life. He told me his wife’s nephew works in the water department.

“He started at the bottom and worked his way up,” Young said. “Every time it storms, he has to work all night.”

“It is inevitable that there will be relatives,” he said, adding, “If they are goofing off on the job because they are someone’s relative, well, we ought to get rid of them.”

My uncles would go along with that.