Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s attempt to expand protections for regular folks who face retaliation for reporting city wrongdoing won praise as a concept but criticism for the details Tuesday.
Since it was first established in 2004, the city’s so-called whistleblower ordinance has covered only city employees. Under the new proposal, endorsed Tuesday by the City Council Rules Committee, protections would be extended to other people who suffer retaliation for exposing corruption.
The current ordinance provides remedies for employees who face retaliation for exposing illegal, dangerous or unethical acts by city officials. If they prove retaliation in court, they can get their jobs back, get double the amount owed in back pay and secure reinstatement of all benefits and seniority rights.
Emanuel’s new measures, set for a Wednesday vote by the full council, would offer remedies to anyone denied a city permit, license, certification, financial benefit, city service or employment as a result of reporting wrongdoing by a city official. If those people proved their case, they could get the permits, benefits or jobs they sought, plus damages.
But there’s a catch: residents would have to file an initial notice with a city department or agency head and the Law Department “within 30 days of the person’s awareness of facts giving rise to the claim of retaliatory action.” If that initial notice did not result in satisfaction, they would have to sue in Cook County Circuit Court within six months of the retaliation. But residents would not be allowed to sue if they didn’t make the initial notice within the 30-day period.
Although people already have the right to sue for alleged wrongdoing, whistleblower ordinances make such lawsuits far more likely, and winning cases is easier, government watchdogs said.
Dick Simpson, a former alderman and political science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said it’s unusual for local governments to extend such protections beyond employees.
And David Morrison, assistant director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, called the effort “a worthwhile broadening of whistle blower protections.”
But both questioned the 30-day time limit, saying it was too short. “The broad concept is a good one,” Simpson said. “The 30 days is a bad period of time, and I hope an alderman will amend it.”
Roderick Drew, a spokesman for the city Law Department, said the 30-day limit was designed to allow the city to quickly remedy wrongdoing.
“Otherwise, it’s harder to correct. It’s to nip the problematic conduct in the bud,” Drew said.
Terry Pastika, executive director of the Citizen Advocacy Center, said 30 days is “far too brief” and wondered why the initial report of wrongdoing wouldn’t go to a neutral third party, like the city inspector general. She also said the ordinance would be more effective if a full year were given to file a lawsuit.
Aldermen, however, weren’t raising those kinds of questions. Instead, they expressed concern that people would file whistle blower lawsuits after being denied permits for legitimate reasons.
“I could see some of these folks who are leaches in our community (filing complaints) against aggressive aldermen here,” said Ald. Robert Fioretti, 2nd.
Fioretti is named in a federal free speech lawsuit filed by the owner of the now-defunct Felony
Franks fast food restaurant after the aldermen dragged out the approval process of a sign for the business.
“The ordinance specifically contemplates that if a denial is for legitimate purposes, a retaliation claim won’t stand,” responded Jeffrey Levine, a city attorney. “It protects elected officials and appointed officials and employees in the event that they are acting properly in the scope of their duties.”
Although he was concerned about misuse of whistle blower provisions, Fioretti nevertheless voted for it.
“It’s a good ordinance,” he said, adding that he was not sure how much difference it would make. “It’s a lot of words. Will it strengthen anybody’s hands? My answer’s ‘probably not.’
Because they ought to be over at the U.S. attorney’s office and the state’s attorney’s office when shakedowns occur, and they do occur.”