We Americans profess not to like nepotism very much, but when we see it on a grand enough scale, we're intrigued. We're not bothered by a presidential election in which both of the candidates owe every political triumph in life to the exploits of their fathers. We can get used to the idea of the president's brother as attorney general, or the president's wife as chief domestic policy adviser. At the highest levels of national office, nepotism seems to convey an aura of excitement, even royalty.

But down in the trenches of local government, it's a different story. Stories about the awarding of power and influence to an officeholder's relatives strike us not only as embarrassing but as disturbing--out of tune with fundamental democratic values. We'll never manage to eradicate nepotism from the internal workings of the political system, but we keep passing laws against it to cover up our discomfort, even when the consequences of those laws border on the bizarre.

On the same day George W. Bush and Al Gore fought it out for president, Myra Mosley, a 42-year-old grocery clerk, won a seat on the school board in Harlan County, Kentucky. She won in impressive fashion, too, outpolling a veteran incumbent. But it appears she won't be able to serve: Mosley's sister is an employee of the county school system.

Sound a little unfair? It's worse than that. The sister was put on the county payroll just a few weeks before the election, by a local school official who was supporting Mosley's opponent. In hiring her, he knew he was very likely going to be invalidating the election. "It certainly has all the appearances of impropriety, in terms of the timing," says the head of the state's Office of Education Accountability. But there's nothing that can be done. The law is the law.

At the moment, Kentucky may be ground zero in the American nepotism wars. On the one hand, it has a political system marked at all levels by a history of spouses in no-show jobs and relatives on the public payroll. On the other hand, it's probably more sensitive about this issue than any place in the country. Just a few weeks ago, a small- town mayor in northern Kentucky was impeached and removed from office for nepotism. In 1990, when the landmark Kentucky Education Reform Act was written, school board members in counties all over the state were hiring wives, cousins, nephews for a whole array of jobs--and this was thought to be a major reason why so many of the schools were so bad. One of the strictest provisions in the reform law was a ban on school nepotism. That's the rule that Myra Mosley was maneuvered into violating.

You might almost say that there's a nepotism belt in this country--a swath roughly corresponding to the hill-and-mountain regions of Kentucky, West Virginia, southern Indiana and southern Illinois. These are the places where a job on the county or school system payroll has long been viewed as a precious commodity, and securing a job for a relative has often been seen not just as an acceptable act but as a family duty. These are also the places, however, where reformers are most intransigent against nepotism, seeing it as an obstacle to modern and efficient government.

Four years ago, in Putnam County, West Virginia, reform-minded local commissioners enacted a new policy barring the hiring of anyone related by blood or marriage to any employee of county government. They soon discovered that this wasn't so easy to enforce: In a small county where intermarriage and nepotism had been the practice for more than a century, no one was entirely sure just who at the courthouse was related to whom. The police chief and his deputy chief were identical twins. The county commission president was their cousin. A survey had to be drawn up and filled out just to determine where the lines of consanguinity ran.

But that wasn't the worst of it. When an applicant for the county police was refused because his father worked in the sheriff's office, he challenged the Putnam law in state court, and won. A circuit judge ruled that an outright ban on hiring of relatives could be justified only if the two would be working in close proximity. Keeping someone off the county payroll simply because a nephew or cousin had an unrelated county job was found to be discriminatory. So Putnam went back last summer and drafted a new rule, in accordance with the court's judgment. But the issue remains a source of intense local disagreement.

There's little question that anti-nepotism rules have had a substantial effect on local political life in jurisdictions that have adopted them. One way to demonstrate that is to compare Kentucky and Indiana.

Indiana has the same tradition of kinfolk on the payroll that Kentucky does, but for one reason or another, it has never done much about the problem. It's still legal in Indiana to hire anybody for a local job, no matter how closely they might be related to the boss. And so there are quite a few counties in southern Indiana whose payrolls look like the ones in Kentucky did 40 or 50 years ago.

In Floyd County, Indiana, just across the river from Louisville, a local reporter asked the county assessor last year about her decision to place her mother on the office payroll. It was a little late to start fussing about that issue, the assessor told him. She had put her sister on the payroll a year earlier. And the chief deputy had hired her own daughter. In fact, in the six-person office, all but one of the staff members were related to each other somehow. "I never even thought about anything negative," the assessor said.

Every once in a while, Indiana's good-government forces try to raise a public outcry about nepotism in Floyd County and some of the jurisdictions around it. In last year's election, newspaper columnist Dale Moss wrote that the practice was disgracing not only the region but the whole state. "I am ashamed," Moss wrote, "that Kentucky-- Kentucky--is even marginally ahead of Indiana regarding nepotism and ethics. If we in Indiana require incentive to shape up, what better incentive than to become cleaner than Kentucky." Moss had a simple solution: demand that candidates for county commissioner endorse an anti-nepotism ordinance. "Bloodlines should not be the crux for employment," he argued. "Those who run for office will run from the issue of nepotism until we corner them." So far, however, nothing has happened.

The most blatant abuses of nepotism in local government--spouse hiring spouse, sibling hiring sibling--tend to obscure the fact that much of the time, this is a difficult issue, especially in small towns where the pool of available talent is small anyway. Rigid solutions often cause more problems than they solve.

Sioux City, Iowa, passed an anti-nepotism law in the 1980s following complaints that a few families were monopolizing the job vacancies in key city departments, such as police and fire. Sioux City's ordinance may have been the most draconian in the country: It forbid any city department to hire a cousin or co-habitating partner of an employee, let alone a spouse.

This had the desired effect of breaking up the family payroll fiefdoms. But it also destroyed some legitimate family traditions in which son followed father or brother followed brother into particular kinds of public work, more as a matter of pride and solidarity than as a search for material gain.

Many of the fire fighters in Sioux City never got over what they regard as a gratuitous insult, even after the law was softened slightly in 1997. "It's a loss of tradition," one of them complained a couple of years ago. "It's a ridiculous law. It's discriminatory. Fire departments have three, four, five generations serving on the East Coast. Why should Sioux City be any different?"

He's right about the East Coast. Where nepotism is not prohibited by law there, it tends to be rather deeply rooted in particular corners of the public work force. In Albany, New York, last year, the mayor's office issued a short list of 19 candidates to fill 10 vacant positions among the city's fire fighters. Three of the 19 were sons of a departmental chief or deputy chief. A fourth was the brother of a captain. That list led to some complaints that maybe it was time Albany looked into some form of nepotism law. The mayor refused to buy it. "People should not be penalized," he said, "because of their fathers' positions in life. I don't have time to worry about that."

Most of the rest of us don't really want to worry about it, either. We realize that decisions about family preference in hiring have to be largely a function of personal integrity and common sense. On the other hand, we do have a sense of shame on this issue. There's a line we don't like to see crossed.

That alone separates us from many of the other countries of the world. It certainly separates us from Brazil, whose Congress last year debated a bill aimed at ending the practice of hiring relatives for legislative staff positions within the institution. At the time of the vote, an estimated one-third of the members of the Congress had relatives on the payroll. Many of the legislators treated the anti- nepotism reform not only as a bad idea but as an insult to their families. "Family members are human and defenseless creatures," one congressman said, "and not these monsters that we are making them out to be."