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 firstname.lastname@example.org.