City Hall

City May Create New Protections for Whistleblowers

The city could create new protections for employees who allege retaliation for blowing the whistle on government misconduct.

By Erica C. Barnett January 11, 2013

The Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission is considering new rules aimed at encouraging city whistleblowers—employees alleging misconduct by a coworker or boss—to come forward by giving them new protections against retaliation.

The proposal gives whistleblowers who believe they have been retaliated against the ability to bring their complaints straight to the ethics commission through a new administrative process (currently, employees claiming retaliation must report it to the mayor). It also gives the ethics director, Wayne Barnett, the authority to issue subpoenas, call witnesses, administer oaths, and generally 

"One of the goals of this [proposal] would be to encourage people who are aware of governmental misconduct to report it—one, by reinforcing the fact that they are protected from retaliation, and two, by indicating to people that if they are the subject of retaliation that they can seek redress for that," commission chairman Bill Sherman says.

“For example, if you were fired for reporting improper conduct, this would be an opportunity, without going to court, to get lost wages."

The new rules would also give whistleblowers the change to go directly to court if, as Sherman puts it, "there was an employee whose situation was so grave or whose case was so complicated that they didn't want to use the administrative process" created by the proposal. And they would give whistleblowers a chance to sue if they feel uncomfortable going to the commission—the “Evil Wayne” scenario, as commissioners described it at their meeting last week, referring to the possibility that current ethics director Wayne Barnett, known as a fierce advocat replaced by a director who didn’t want to help employees who were victims of retaliation.

Although the legislation would cap both attorneys' fees (fees paid to an attorney if a whistleblower wins the case) and damages for emotional distress at $20,000, those fees would be funded by the city, which could raise budget concerns. As Sherman put it at last week's meeting, "I don't want to hang a sign on the door that says, 'Free money for lawyers.'"

A spokeswoman for the city attorney's office had no comment on the legislation.The commission could refer the proposal to the council as soon as next month. We have a call out to council member Tim Burgess, whose government performance committee oversees ethics and election law.

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