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March 10, 2010 > County to enact whistle blower program

County to enact whistle blower program

Submitted By Gwendolyn Mitchell and Marina Hinestrosa

The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors approved the creation of a Whistle Blower Program, on March 2, to accept reports of concern from employees and the general public. The program provides a safe and confidential environment in which to make an initial statement, comment or referral requiring further investigation.

"Transparency in government is essential to preserve the public trust," said Supervisor Dave Cortese, Vice Chair of the Finance and Government Operations Committee and a champion of the County's new Whistle Blower Program. "We want to make sure our employees have the confidence to express their concerns without fear of reprisal. One of our goals is to let employees know that when they have concerns about inappropriate conduct, they can come forward and have a safe place to refer inquiries."

Under the new system, current employees and members of the public can make confidential reports of concern about any employee actions that violate local campaign finance laws, conflict of interest laws, or governmental ethics; or the misuse of County resources; or using a County position to advance a private interest.

"This new system of accountability as a very positive step," said Ken Yeager, President of the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors and Chair of the Finance and Government Operations Committee. "It is consistent with our roles as stewards of County resources."

The Board's action is the first step. The ordinance outlines the characteristics of a policy which is to be developed and also clearly outline types of concerns that might be reported. It will give the reporter the option of maintaining anonymity and provide several options for filing reports such as e-mail, telephone or paper documentation.

"Two of the County's core values are the underpinning for this new process," said County Executive Jeffrey V. Smith. "The first is to 'demonstrate ethical conduct reflecting honesty and integrity' and the second is to 'use the resources entrusted to us wisely'. The new process will provide checks and balances and help us understand where there is a need to modify practices or behavior."

Specific Ordinance provisions include:

Complaints of Improper Governmental Activity: Any person who believes that a County employee or officer has engaged in an improper governmental activity should report improper financial activity to the Board of Supervisors' Management Audit Division and other improper activities to the Office of the County Counsel. Each office will provide the complainant with the necessary complaint forms. Upon filing the complaint, each office will determine an appropriate course of action. The complainant shall provide information that a county officer or employee has engaged in improper governmental activity in violation of state or federal law, County ordinance or administrative memoranda.

Investigation: Upon receipt of a complaint, each named office shall promptly plan and conduct an appropriate investigation and notify the other offices and the Board of Supervisors as appropriate. Depending on the alleged violation, the investigation might involve departmental management, labor relations and/or appropriate law agencies.

No retaliation: Any retaliation or reprisal by any County officer or employee against a complainant or informant is strictly prohibited; provided, however, it is determined that a complaint was filed by a County employee in bad faith, said employee may be subject to appropriate disciplinary action.

Staff will develop specific "Whistle Blower" guidelines to be established as a Board Policy in the weeks ahead. The Board of Supervisors' Management Audit Division and the Office of the County Counsel will accept and investigate reports. The March 2 action sets the process in motion.

For more information, contact Gwendolyn Mitchell or Marina Hinestrosa on (408) 299-5119.

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