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New whistleblower policy would require Cuyahoga County employees to report county ethic - but not state, federal - violations

The Plain Dealer  Cleveland logo The Plain Dealer Cleveland 4/6/2022 Kaitlin Durbin,

CLEVELAND, Ohio – In what is expected to be the final revision, Cuyahoga County councilmembers compromised Tuesday on a whistleblower policy that limits mandatory reporting only to elected officials, employees and board members with “actual knowledge” of county ethics violations.

It also takes them off the hook for having to speak up if they know the violation has already been reported by someone else, a copy of the new proposed legislation shows.

Previous versions had applied the mandate to anyone “who reasonably believes” a violation, such as conflicts of interest or self-dealing, has or will occur, without exceptions. Now, employees without direct knowledge of a county violation – or those with knowledge of any state and federal law violations — will be encouraged to report, but not required.

“This version expands whistleblower protections, encourages reporting and increases clarity,” Councilman Dale Miller, who initially argued to remove the mandate altogether, said after proposing the latest amendment.

The legislation will also continue to allow for written or verbal complaints, permit anonymous reporting, eliminate the 5-day reporting window, and broaden the list of people who employees may confide in to include their supervisor, the Agency of the Inspector General or the Human Resources Department.

It now also recognizes non-employees, such as individuals seeking or receiving county services, as potential whistleblowers, giving all residents an outlet to report problems and receive protections, rather than filing a lawsuit. Their complaints would be discussed with the relevant county department for investigation and corrective action, if applicable.

“The hope here is to provide a way that at least some of such complaints could be resolved informally, without litigation,” Miller said.

The new language was unanimously approved by five members of council’s Operations, Intergovernmental Relations and Public Transportation Committee on Tuesday and moves on to full council for a second reading.

The action comes after a divided committee previously voted forward a different version, following contentious discussion about whether county employees should be required to report wrongdoing or only encouraged to. The full board then elected to send it back to the committee for additional discussion.

In the previous committee meeting, Chair Martin Sweeney and Miller had argued in favor of language that said employees “may” report wrongdoing, rather than “shall.” They worried a mandate could create a hostile work environment by forcing employees “to be a snitch for management.”

Councilwoman Sunny Simon has consistently advocated for the mandate, citing examples in the county’s past where employees did not speak up about corruption and bad things happened, ultimately resulting in today’s charter form of government. On Tuesday, she still worried the language gave individuals too big of a loophole not to have to report state or federal violations, such as theft or drunk driving on county time.

“I think we need to have a strong message that...bad behavior must be reported,” Simon said Tuesday.

She had prepared another version of the legislation that would mandate reporting for all local, state and federal violations, but never presented it after her colleagues indicated the current version is strong enough. Other committee members include Nan Baker and Jack Schron.

Schron said most of the complaints the county already receives come from individuals who say they didn’t know a mandate was already in place. He was out of town during the last committee meeting, but said had he been present, he would have sided with Miller to remove the mandate.

“This is not the Big Brother state,” he said, adding that he believes people report “on the basis of good citizenship. They don’t have to be told and mandated.”

The new legislation is also expected to offer whistleblowers better protection against punishment for coming forward. It gives them up to 30 days after separation from the county to report potential retaliation and outlines potential disciplinary actions against their offenders, including termination.

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