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Originally published Sunday, December 8, 2013 at 8:04 PM

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Seattle council to vote on stronger whistle-blower protections

A bill that would give additional protections to city employees who report misconduct is expected to pass the Seattle City Council on Monday.


Seattle Times staff reporter

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The Seattle City Council Monday is expected to approve legislation that strengthens protections for city employees who feel retaliated against for reporting misconduct in the workplace.

The biggest change will be that complaints of retaliation will be turned over to the independent Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission. Those complaints now are the responsibility of the mayor’s office, which typically asks the employee’s own department to investigate.

“It’s problematic when the executive branch is effectively investigating themselves,” said Councilmember Tim Burgess, chair of the Government Performance and Finance Committee, which approved the new rules last week and forwarded them to the full City Council for final action.

Burgess said the goal of the new whistle-blower code is to encourage city employees to report misconduct and give them more confidence that they won’t face retaliation for doing so.

A national business survey in 2011 found that nearly half of employees observe misconduct in the workplace. The majority — 65 percent — report it, but more than one in five experiences retaliation for doing so, according to the Ethics Resource Center in Arlington, Va. One of the most common reasons employees said they chose not to report misconduct was fear of retaliation, according to a center report on whistle-blowers.

In Seattle, only about 10 complaints of retaliation were investigated over the past four years. Wayne Barnett, executive director of the Ethics Commission, said more city workers might report misconduct if there were stronger protections in place against retaliation.

“When you tell an employee that the person investigating their complaint of retaliation is their boss, that undermines confidence,” he said.

Now, only whistle-blowers who file an initial complaint about government misconduct with the Ethics Commission are protected against retaliation. Under the revised code, any employee who reports misconduct within his or her chain of command and later feels retaliated against will be protected.

Barnett said that national studies show that most employees who report problem behavior go first to their own supervisor.

The city’s whistle-blower code hasn’t been updated since 1994. Since then, both the state and King County have strengthened their codes to protect employees against retaliation for reporting wrongdoing, said Bill Sherman, chairman of the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission.

“We asked ourselves how to best prevent retaliation from happening, but if it does occur, how to make whole the employee who did the right thing by reporting,” Sherman said.

He noted that the revised code gives employees two options to address the retaliation. They can choose a streamlined review by a city hearing examiner, or if the case is large or complicated, or if the employee doesn’t trust the integrity of a city process, he or she will now be able to file a civil lawsuit.

The changes also give employees more time to bring a retaliation claim, from just 30 days to six months. It also expands the definition of a whistle-blower to include employees who are perceived to have reported improper government activity, even if they didn’t file a formal complaint, or those who provided information to assist an investigation into misconduct.

The new rules expand the remedies for a substantiated claim of retaliation to include future pay and compensation for emotional distress up to $20,000. A whistle-blower now can only get his or her job back and reasonable attorney fees.

“We think this is a major step toward improving city governance and protecting employees,” Sherman said.

Lynn Thompson: lthompson@seattletimes.com or 206-464-8305. On Twitter @lthompsontimes



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