Our view: Workers at public places, speak freely
The term “whistleblower” is a hot topic these days, evidenced by the goings-on this week in Congress.
In Grand Forks, it has public entities taking another look at whistleblower policies – those guidelines that dictate how employees or board members can report potential wrongdoing without fear of retribution.
“The importance of (whistleblower policies) is to literally protect employees,” Tom Ford, director of administration for Grand Forks County, told the Herald last month. “We want employees to feel comfortable and safe to report fraud if and when they see it.”
As an example, the Herald’s report noted whistleblower guidelines adopted by the Grand Forks Region Economic Development Corporation, which has rules in place to “remove barriers for staff and volunteers to come forward with credible information if there are instances of violation of policies and/or illegal practices occurring within the organization.”
The policy includes protocols for reporting violations, including an option to an outside, unaffiliated, third party.
“No directors, employees or agents who in good faith report a violation shall suffer harassment, retaliation or adverse consequences,” the policy states.
All public entities should be considering their policies, since it could mean the difference between a costly lawsuit or peaceful resolution of an issue regarding the public’s dollars, property or policies. It also establishes trust that public entities are working hard to ensure that anyone can feel comfortable coming forward with information that could be damning for that entity.
On a related note, a piece written by Florida attorney Frank D. LoMonte, published earlier this year by the Poynter Institute, notes that workplace gag rules are unconstitutional and that any attempt to prohibit government employees from sharing their candid observations is against the law.
LoMonte notes that in Michigan, for instance, “a federal district court struck down an ordinance that required firefighters to send all media requests to the fire chief. In Connecticut, a U.S. district judge threw out a highway patrol policy forbidding troopers from making ‘unofficial comments relative to department policy’ without permission from a supervisor.”
And he notes how a report (titled “Protecting Sources and Whistleblowers: The First Amendment and Public Employees’ Right to Speak to the Media”) documents at least 20 cases in which courts invalidated workplace policies prohibiting government employees from publicly discussing their work without permission.
Further, LoMonte – who teaches media law at the University of Florida – writes that “school districts across the country use cookie-cutter language in their employee handbooks prohibiting employees from giving unapproved interviews: ‘media requests to interview, videotape, or photograph … staff, students, or board members’ must go through a district media-relations coordinator.’ ”
He contends that if a policy “is backed up with punitive consequences, there’s every chance it is unconstitutional, and that anyone punished for violating it could successfully sue.”
If public employees of the city or region feel this is happening at their workplace, reach out to the Herald and discuss it with us.
Meanwhile, those public entities that are adapting to the times, ensuring openness and guaranteeing safe avenues for whistleblowers, are doing it right. Keep up the good work.