Municipal employees who report illegal or unethical conduct by management at City Hall will be guaranteed some protection under a resolution passed by the City Council this week.
Council member Paul Koretz, who labored for six years to get the whistle-blower measure passed, said it will help ensure more ethical city administration. In the past, some workers have expressed a reluctance to report supervisors for fear of reprisals, he said.
"With the skeptical attitude people have toward government, this is a positive sign," Koretz said.
The resolution directs the city to hire an independent ombudsman who will receive and investigate allegations of fraud, conflict of interest, mismanagement or criminal behavior by department heads and other managers.
The ombudsman will report his findings to a closed session of the City Council, which may then refer the matter to the city manager for action. The measure specifically forbids retaliating against whistle-blowers.
Though it finally passed unanimously, the resolution was the subject of considerable debate among council members and city workers after Koretz first proposed it in 1989. The initiative languished partly because some, including current Mayor John Heilman, felt that early drafts did not adequately safeguard the rights of the accused.
"I never had a problem with the concept" of the measure, Heilman said. "But we had to make sure people who are the subject of complaints have due process protections and a chance to exonerate themselves." Heilman said he was satisfied with the level of protection in the new resolution.
Yet Koretz and some supporters believe the measure, while an important first step, may not offer enough protection for whistle-blowers. For instance, the resolution does not fully guarantee workers' confidentiality and does not allow the ombudsman to recommend punishment for violators.
But the establishment of a formal process may make some workers more comfortable about coming forward with information, Koretz said.