Nepotism occurred when Seal Beach Police Chief William Stearns' wife got a new job without the position being posted first, the city's civil services board decided in a 3-2 vote this week.
The split decision reached Thursday followed an Orange County Grand Jury report issued in June that sharply criticized the incident and alleged that the Police Department was beset by nepotism, poor morale and citizen complaints of harassment.
Last month, the City Council disputed the nepotism charges stemming from Michele Stearns' reclassification from animal control officer to court liaison.
Although the grand jury report indicated that the hiring had violated city rules, City Council members, the city attorney and police officials have said that proper procedures were followed in making the job change.
But the Civil Service Board now has formally disagreed, declaring that the job should have been posted so that others could apply.
Board member Norma Strohmeier also questioned Michele Stearns' qualifications at the time she was hired and later promoted.
But board member Irwin Zeiger said: "I don't think her qualifications are relevant. What's relevant is whether there was nepotism, and apparently there was."
Al Chafe and Sam D'Amico, former Seal Beach police officers who once supervised both the police chief and his wife, dissented.
Michele Stearns was not present but wrote a letter that arrived after the board voted. In her letter, she said her job as an animal control officer was affecting her health, leaving the options of expensive medical disability retirement, retraining or reclassification. She was offered the court liaison job as a reclassification, not an appointment, she said.
Civil Service Board Chairman Maury Gutkin said his own panel shares blame for the chain of events.
"Instead of listing the position for this new spot, they simply announced it to us as an appointment. But we approved it. We must have been asleep. . . . She may have won the position anyway, but we should have listed it."