When San Diego Convention Center Corp. chairwoman April Boling asked president and CEO Carol Wallace to meet with Boling's daughter, she expected Wallace to offer career advice-not a career.
But late last month, Lenore Boling started working at the quasi-public corporation. A prominent ethicist says her hiring smacks of nepotism. Boling, too, said she was surprised-upset, actually-when she found out Lenore had landed her dream job in the newly established convention services department. The position, which involves helping convention planners make arrangements for various activities around town, pays roughly $40,000 a year.
Boling said she's concerned Lenore's hiring might run afoul of state conflict-of-interest laws and the city's municipal code, which prevents officials from using their position or authority to benefit members of their immediate family.
Appointed to an unpaid position on the Convention Center board in 2002 by then-Mayor Dick Murphy, Boling was so worried about the hiring that she asked the Convention Center's attorneys for their opinion. Given the all-clear but still not satisfied, she turned to the city's Ethics Commission for a second opinion.
Boling, an accountant who's served as treasurer for local political campaigns and political groups, said that because the board was never asked to approve the decision, and because Lenore, 26, is no longer a dependant-under the city's municipal code, a child is considered a member of an official's "immediate family"-she's confident Lenore's hiring didn't violate any laws.
But given recent scandals involving city officials, Boling said she knew that even the appearance of impropriety could harm her reputation. And it wouldn't help her case that her daughter's entry-level position wasn't advertised to Convention Center staff or the public.
"There were, in my view, some issues of perception... but in the end it was a legitimate hire," she said. "What the perception boils down to is that I should have asked my adult daughter not to take a position for which she was qualified, and one that she very much wanted, because of how it would reflect on me in my volunteer status on that board. I just wasn't prepared to ask my daughter for that."
Wallace insists the decision to hire Lenore was completely "above board."
With nearly 25 years in the convention industry and 14 years at the Convention Center, Wallace said she regularly meets with individuals interested in her field. She met with Lenore at Boling's request and said she was impressed with the young woman's attitude and credentials-including a degree in economics from UCLA and experience in the tourism industry-and passed her résumé on to Sandra Moreno, who heads sales and marketing at the Convention Center.
"At the time [Moreno and I] were already in the process of discussing how we were going to handle the extra workload that we have in the convention services department," Wallace said. "So when I met with Lenore, being aware of those discussions, I called Sandra again after the meeting... to say that I thought she would be excellent for that department, and sent her over there to meet with Sandra."
Wallace said the need for additional staff and the interview with Lenore arose simultaneously. When asked why the job opening was never advertised, Wallace said she didn't want to create "a false impression" by going through "a faked process, for employees.
"It would be really disingenuous of us to advertise a position when you know you already have someone else identified for it," she said. "We just don't play games like that with our employees."
But two ethicists contacted by CityBeat said Wallace and the board might want to reconsider hiring practices at the Convention Center. Both recommended advertising all positions and requiring that several candidates be interviewed before a vacancy is filled.
"Clearly there is an ethical problem," said Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies, a nonpartisan research organization that looks at ethics and governmental issues. "This is nepotism. This is a case where a high-ranking official is at least encouraging the hiring of a child although probably not in so many words.
"It's unfortunate, probably, that the daughter is sort of caught up in this."
But Robert Fellmeth, an ethicist and executive director of the University of San Diego's Center for Public Interest Law, said that "given the scale of the problems in this city... the hair on the back of my neck is not standing up.
"[Boling] essentially gave a reference, which is what it amounts to, [for] her daughter... without any kind of coercion, threat or promise of reward to the person making the decision," he said. "I don't think that is a problem, because that is commonplace."
Both Fellmeth and Stern credit Boling for taking steps to insure that laws weren't broken but, because her term on the board ends next month, Stern said he thinks the timing of the decision to hire her daughter was strategic, although he says it simultaneously minimizes the overall impact.
"It's short-term bad press, and in the long term the daughter is going to have a good job," he said. "It also does mitigate it a lot because the mother won't be there to perhaps protect the daughter."
More interesting than what the ethicists have to offer may be what San Diego's newly elected mayor, Jerry Sanders, has to say about the flap. Boling is a member of Sanders' transition team, and changing the culture and ethics at City Hall was a hot topic during the recent campaign.
Informed Tuesday about Lenore's hiring, Sanders stood by Boling, citing her professionalism and integrity, but in a written statement, he said he's "disappointed that the hiring process wasn't conducted by the Convention Center Corporation in an open and transparent manner. As a publicly subsidized entity, the Convention Center Corporation must adhere to the highest professional standards, as should all government agencies."