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Changes sought to whistleblower procedure

Sonoma County grand jury: ‘Complicated process deters people with valid complaints’

By BRETT WILKISON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

For those trying to expose waste, fraud and abuse in government, the path can be torturous. Whistleblowers must contact one agency after another, and in the process, they can lose both their anonymity and faith in any follow up.

The Sonoma County grand jury reached those conclusions after months of studying the issue. The panel is now calling for a change, saying that gaps between state and local options for whistleblowers may be turning some away.

“It is likely this complicated process deters people with valid complaints from following through,” the grand jury said in an interim report issued two weeks ago.

A countywide whistleblower program with a single hotline would improve the process on the local level, the panel found.

“The (grand jury) did find instances where if there was a uniform program throughout the county, things would be a heck of a lot better,” said Chris Christensen, the grand jury foreman.

He declined to elaborate on those instances. The report said only that the current system — where various local governments take and investigate complaints separately, with the state doing the same on its level — left “many possibilities for either suppressing critical information and/or for career-altering retaliation against a whistleblower.”

The report called for a centralized effort encompassing all 110 local governments, including the county, its nine cities, and districts and boards overseeing fire protection, schools, water, parks, health care, cemeteries, transportation, garbage and other services.

The proposal raised eyebrows among local public officials, who questioned its scope and whether it would duplicate existing efforts.

“I’m all for shining a bright light on everything we do,” said Mitch Stogner, executive director of the North Coast Rail Authority. The railroad agency is one of 100 independent public entities, aside from the county and cities, asked to consider the proposal.

“A pretty good case could be made that this might be overkill,” Stogner said.

Others said that rather than a centralized program, complaints are better handled from the start by the government or agency in question.

“My immediate reaction is that it seems like it’s adding an extra layer level of government — one further removed from our employees and our constituency,” said Petaluma city manager John Brown.

Like other local governments, the city receives citizen complaints through elected officials and its various departments. Most are handled internally, though some are turned over to outside investigators, Brown said.

Employee complaints are generally handled by the personnel department, he said.

“We try to respond to everything that appears to be legitimate,” he said.

The grand jury identified at least 11 California counties that it said had formal whistleblower programs. San Francisco’s came under fire in news reports last week with allegations that the program operates in secrecy, doesn’t hold employers accountable and leaves whistleblowers to fend for themselves.

“I can see how the grand jury would want a (centralized) program,” said David Heath, interim general manager of Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit, another of the 100 independent agencies. “The whole trick is the devil is in the details.”

Under the grand jury’s proposal, complaints from the hotline would first be evaluated for validity. If warranted, they would then be referred on for investigation by the “appropriate levels of government,” the report said, without giving further details.

The county Auditor-Controller’s Office, which handles some whistleblower duties for county government, would be a first option to handle those administrative duties, the report said.

But the cash-strapped county government doesn’t have funds set aside for such a program, Sonoma County Administrator Veronica Ferguson said.

The estimated $15,000 cost for the hotline could be shared by the various participating governments, the grand jury noted. It did not estimate administrative costs or say if those would also be shared.

“I don’t want to say we won’t (participate),” Ferguson said. She added that she thought the county’s own options for whistleblowers “worked well.”

“The question is, would we add value?” she said.

A second option would put the grand jury in charge of the program.

A California grand jury expert said that move, which would significantly expand the panel’s duties, may be unprecedented in the state. Typically, grand juries have functioned as a destination of last resort for whistleblowers, the expert said.

“It doesn’t sound much different from what grand juries do anyway. But I don’t see how they could become an official clearinghouse for all complaints,” said Jerry Lewi, who was speaking for himself but who serves as public relations chair of the California Grand Jurors’ Association, the main training body for grand juries in the state.

Fiscal constraints could make the administrative role a difficult one for the all-volunteer, 19-member panel. The grand jury’s county-supplied budget, now at $75,000, is set for a $6,300 cut in July.

The jury also would be looking at an additional estimated 50 complaints a year, up from the current number of 70.
Jury Foreman Christensen said the larger workload would be daunting but not overwhelming. “Our group kicked it around. They felt that if nothing else happens, they could be involved,” he said.

The grand jury is set to issue its final report, including the interim whistleblower report, on June 30. A response from the county administrator is required within 60 days. The county Board of Supervisors, city councils, and the county auditor-controller, all of whom are elected, must respond within 90 days.

The grand jury has also requested responses from the 100 independent agencies, districts and boards.

Contact Staff Writer Brett Wilkison at 521-5295 or brett.wilkison@pressdemocrat.com.





7 Responses to “Changes sought to whistleblower procedure”

  1. BrownActJack says:

    Does anyone really believe that if you discuss a case about violation of law, ethics, or morals, with the governmental agency that anything will be done about it.
    every notice how the city council doesn’t tell people what they are told by staff , or by lobbyists, and never seem to respond to comments at the meetings.

    Heck, I know what happens, and it is the same everywhere. Agency sent out a bunch of comment cards to forward to agency, and the cards that were negative were sent back to staff telling them they really didn’t want to forward them to the headquarters, and staff through them away.

    So much for negative comments.

    when was the last time you ever saw a comment that was made at a SR city council meeting responded to, or answered by, the members.

    Can’t remember, I have the same trouble.

    Heck , SR doesn’t even want the public comments to be reported or shown on the video. so you think they care about what should be told to the public.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  2. I am in support of the grand jury and a whistle blower program. Unfortunately I have been before the jury. I found the jury members to be well versed, clear, direct, interested, and ethical. They were prepared and represented themselves well. They are one body trying to serve the public well, with the resources they have. They are a watch group for the community they serve.
    They propose a whistle blower program. As a public employee I see and am exposed to issues in government functions that may be unethical, illegal, mismanagement. Tax and rate payers are shielded as are many of the governing boards”What goes on hear, stays here if we want to keep our jobs”.
    Whistle blowers have no protection in Sonoma county. The grand jury requires a complaintent identify the self, where confidential hot lines do not. Give the grand jury the right to protect complaintent against retribution. You need us to speek up, to protect your tax dollars from mismanagement, illegal activities. Give us your protection with a whistle blower program so we can protect your money.
    Just Say No To Government Cover Up, By Hushing Up Those Who Know?

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  3. Dogs Rule says:

    If you complain too loudly about the (SCACC) animal shelter- in other words, if you get in their face about killiing 2,000 animals a year – Code Enforecement personnel shows up at your house. That’s how they roll. You want to blow the whistle on the county, you best not live here.

    Thumb up 13 Thumb down 1

  4. Sandy M says:

    @Reality Check Here is the Quote from the Feb 9th article: If this doesn’t bother you. Then I hope you never have to go before a Grand Jury in this County. Because in the back of your mind, you will know that it has the potential to be told outside that room. The other troubling issue is PD failed to follow this lead. Why? Here is the quote from that article:

    Marcia Barton, a field representative for Service Employees International Union 1021, said she spoke with a grand juror who confirmed the inquiry. Barton said the juror told her the investigation may expand to include Ferguson’s handling of the situation.

    The county’s civil grand jury, which monitors local government operations, does not confirm or discuss ongoing investigations.

    Thumb up 8 Thumb down 1

  5. Reality Check says:

    Does the expectation of anonymity protect so-called whistleblowers from retribution or encourage petty and sometimes vindictive complaints?

    If fraud is occurring and abuse sufficiently serious to complain about, then isn’t the district attorney’s office the place to file a complaint? We are talking about a crime, no?

    Our Constitution guarantees an accused the right to confront his accuser. We need to tread carefully here. Let’s not let our distrust of government, however justified, lead to a system that’s starting to take on the methods of Joseph McCarthy.

    Thumb up 7 Thumb down 3

  6. Greg Karraker says:

    Talk about burying the lead. For anyone who is appalled at the waste of taxpayer money, the real story is Paragraph 7:

    “The report called for a centralized effort encompassing all 110 local governments, including the county, its nine cities, and districts and boards overseeing fire protection, schools, water, parks, health care, cemeteries, transportation, garbage and other services.”

    110 local governments? In a county of 472,000 people? Even a total cynic like me is astounded.

    Thumb up 20 Thumb down 0

  7. Sandy M says:

    I find this article quite humorous, especially since it was only a couple of months ago that the PD reported that there was a leak in the Grand Jury. See the Press Democrat article dated Feb 9th. Where a Grand Juror confirmed an ongoing investigation into the Sonoma County Ag Dept. How’s that for confidentiality? Also why wasn’t that looked into? Why, because as usual the County just doesn’t care! Nor does the PD investigate that any farther!

    What a joke to believe this County has anything remotely close to something that an employee or taxpayer can go to and feel safe about complaining in regards to this County. Get results after you bring a complaint, or evidence to the correct Dept.? It doesn’t matter! Nothing ever happens! Business as usual. Even when dirty secrets are exposed. Who cares, let the taxpayers keep paying!

    Let’s see how many thumbs down this gets…Thumbs down equals Union. Thumbs Up equals Taxpayers. This is just getting to easy now!

    Thumb up 32 Thumb down 2

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