SF plans improvements for whistleblower program

See something wrong, blow the whistle.

That’s the message sent by the City Controller’s Office in releasing its annual report on a whistleblowing program Thursday. City Controller staff said that despite past criticism, the whistleblower program is seeing a steady flow of complaints and they are being handled appropriately.

Workplace bullying, hiring of family members, directing customers to spend money in a family business and drinking alcohol at a barbecue during work hours are substantiated complaints among the hundreds that came into the San Francisco’s voter-approved whistleblower program during the past year. In these cases the workers either resigned, or suspensions or terminations were recommended.

The 2003 voter-approved whistleblower program is meant to crack down on misuse of funds and improper behavior among city employees and public contractors.

During fiscal year 2015-16, there were 325 complaints filed with the whistleblower program, of which 250 were filed online. Of the complaints, 103 were sustained with some form of action taken.

The program has faced sharp criticism in the past, particularly in two civil grand jury reports, including one in July 2011 titled “Whistling in the Dark” and another in May 2015, which recommended stronger retaliatory protections for whistleblowers.

City Controller Ben Rosenfield said in an email to the San Francisco Examiner that a number of improvements were made to the program in recent years. Those improvements included quarterly public reporting of complaints, summary of every sustained complaint in the report instead of only a select few, ramped up training for employees and — for the first time — a breakdown of the complaint tally by city department.

Of the 222 complaints actually investigated and closed last fiscal year, the most related to the Public Health Department at 47, followed by 31 at the Municipal Transportation Agency.

Rosenfield is also working with the Ethics Commission executive director and Board of Supervisors President London Breed on her legislation to implement additional amendments, which is expected to come before a Board of Supervisors Rules Committee later this month. Changes would include added retaliation protections for whistleblowers.

The program has six investigators and takes an average of 68 days to close a complaint. City Controller officials point to certain metrics when asked if the program is being publicized enough and people encouraged to use it. That includes how there are 38 complaints per 100,000 residents received in San Francisco compared to 13.6 in Los Angeles County and 120 in San Diego.

“The fact that we substantiate a high number of our claims shows that we are triaging and investigating and working through everything that comes through our door,” said Tonia Lediju, the City Controller’s director of city audits.Board of SupervisorsCity Controller's OfficecorruptionPoliticsSan FranciscoTransparencyWhistleblower

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