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Kadner: When a stepdad isn’t a relative

Prairie State College trustees Wendell Mosby Jacqueline Agee | File photo

Prairie State College trustees Wendell Mosby and Jacqueline Agee | File photo

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Updated: April 27, 2013 6:09AM



Jacqueline Agee, chairwoman of the Prairie State College Board in Chicago Heights, contends that her stepfather is not a relative.

“He’s not my stepfather,” she explained to SouthtownStar reporter Casey Toner earlier this year. “He’s the man who married my mother.”

That sounds a lot like Merriam-Webster’s definition of stepfather which reads, “the husband of one’s mother when distinct from one’s natural or legal father.”

Leo Alexander is also the man hired to an $80,000-a-year job as the community college’s assistant director of human resources, a position that was not posted.

He had previously served in another administrative post at the college, to which he was also hired while Agee was board chairwoman.

Agee doesn’t understand why I’m interested in this.

She points out, correctly, that the issue has been covered by Toner for this newspaper and by a reporter for the Chicago Tribune.

I’m interested because Agee is running for re-election as a college trustee in the April 9 board election. Although I hadn’t commented on the controversy previously, I made a mental note to check into it before the election.

I wanted to talk to Agee myself to find out why she thought her stepfather wasn’t a relative.

Agee, it turns out, did not want to talk to me. She asked that I put my questions in writing, and we exchanged emails on Monday.

I find the email process rather cumbersome and not very revealing but agreed because there was no alternative.

As an attorney, Agee argues that the hiring of her stepfather was not a violation of the college board’s policy that prohibits nepotism.

Nepotism is apparently narrowly defined under the board’s policy as “spouse, significant other, parent, child, individual for whom a trustee has been assigned a legal responsibility in guardianship, sibling, grandparent, grandchild, aunt, uncle, niece, nephew and in-laws of the same degree of relationship,” Agee stated.

It still seems to me that there’s an appearance of a conflict of interest when a stepfather is hired.

When I pressed Agee for further clarification, she replied, “I met the man when I was 25. I was raised by my father. I have never lived with him (Alexander) nor do I consider him anything other than ‘the man that married my mother.’

“A stepfather implies some sort of rearing, doesn’t it?” Agee asked.

Technically, it doesn’t. But I think Agee’s point about her stepfather marrying her mother later in life is worthy of consideration.

I’ve considered it. And it still bothers me.

I think it raises an issue about preferential treatment and so do some faculty members, who have complained about it publicly, and readers who have contacted me.

There can be a difference between doing what is legal and doing what is right.

“Says who?” Agee asked.

Says me, I guess.

I asked Agee if she voted on her stepfather’s hiring, and she noted that she abstained.

However, I also asked if a report that she had voted “yes” when Alexander was hired to his previous position at Prairie State and she replied, “Yes, as did all trustees present. ...Why shouldn’t I have?”

Because it looks bad.

Agee responded with a list of people who work at the college in various capacities and have familial relationships.

Many of them are faculty members, and in one case, Agee contends that a woman faculty member hired both her parents to work as adjunct faculty at the college.

Well, I don’t know if those relationships create problems, but if the people at the top are viewed as engaging in preferential hiring, it would certainly be difficult to tell others it is wrong.

Agee doesn’t understand that or why I would want to write another story about the situation involving Alexander. She went so far as to email Toner, urging him to tell me to read the story he had written.

Toner did a fine job with his story, but I was interested in probing a little deeper because readers who called me charged that Agee has become arrogant, turns a deaf ear to criticism, attempts to bully opponents into silence and has damaged the reputation of Prairie State.

Based on my experience in trying to question Agee, I can understand why concerns are being raised. I believe candidates for public office and elected officials ought to subject themselves to personal interviews on matters of public interest, and hiring a stepfather falls into that category.

Agee replied that she believes reporters have a “canny ability to take things said out of context and twist them around. This way there is a written record of questions and responses.”

While Agee agreed that elected officials should be available and responsive when issues about their conduct or the government they represent are raised, she wondered, “When does it end?”

She questioned whether she had to repeat herself to every reporter who calls, suggesting that I was being used as a tool of political opponents “out to get me.”

“Don’t you find it strange that this has been reported by several other reporters and you are just now getting a call?” she wrote.

Actually, I’ve been getting calls and emails for some time.

I do not understand why public officials in Illinois feel entitled to hire their business associates, friends or stepfathers to government jobs at the public’s expense.

Sometimes they claim these people are competent and the best individuals for the job.

I would prefer that my government officials hire someone else, if only to send a signal to the public that their tax money is not being used to perpetuate nepotism, cronyism and favoritism.

So long as Agee’s stepfather works for Prairie State, where she is the board chairwoman, questions about that relationship are legitimate.

If she wants the questions to end, she could simply resign her post.



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