In a worksession immediately following a special mayor and City Council meeting, Gaithersburg City Attorney Lynn Board briefed officials on the progress of a "Whistleblower Focus Group" tasked with creating a program for the reporting and investigation of illegal actions in municipal government.
The focus group, consisting of 10 city employees, began meeting in April to research whistleblower policies and draft amendments to the city's Personnel Rules & Regulations Manual.
Board said the group considered policies from 40 or 50 other jurisdictions to determine what may work for Gaithersburg.
Current policy highlights include, according to city documents:
- Creates externally manned reporting hotline.
- Allows both signed and anonymous reports.
- Creates a preliminary review panel.
- Creates investigatory process.
- Creates appeal process.
- Protects employees from retaliation.
- Does not protect from frivolous reports.
While it is unclear how the hotline might be managed, Board said anonymous reporting was key for the focus group.
"Employees felt strongly that if there wasn't an option to anonymously report [improper or illegal actions in city government], it might deter people from reporting," Board said.
But anonymous reports would require significant details to warrant an investigation, the city attorney said. An anonymous tipster saying "City Attorney Lynn Board is taking money" simply would not be enough, she said.
"The preference is [for tipsters] to not be anonymous" so the city can call back and ask for information about dates and documents related to the complaint, Board said.
A three-person panel consisting of Board, a human resources official and a city employee selected at random would decide if there is enough information for a complaint to be investigated, Board said.
Appeals or complaints about Board and her department are handled by the mayor and council, Board said. All investigations and appeals are private and treated as personnel matters.
Issues with the policy identified by the city include:
- Hotline availability to the public.
- Application of policy to Mayor and Council, Commissions, Boards and Committees.
- Investigation and appeal process if mayor and council are subject of a report.
If Mayor Sidney A. Katz or any council members were to come under investigation, the city would hire an outside investigator and use its Ethics Commission in case of an appeal, Board said, adding there is currently no way to discipline the mayor and council from the city.
"There is. It's called elections." Council Member Michael A. Sesma quipped in response.
The reporting hotline is not meant to supercede the city's current grievences and disciplinary policies, Board said.
Council members also expressed concern over anonymous, frivolous reporting from the public. Council Vice President Ryan Spiegel said he supports public hotline availability but the city needs to think about how to best apply it.
"There is always a balancing act to make sure you give people the option [to report]" but the city needs to manage frivolous complaints, Spiegel said.
The city can still use the courts to remedy libelous or slanderous complaints, Board said.
The city hopes to officially introduce the policy to council in October, Board said. A public hearing and final action would follow.
What do you think about Gaithersburg's plans to create a program for reporting and investigating improper or illegal actions in city government? Tell us in the comments!