Legislation making it a crime to retaliate against public employee "whistle blowers" has been signed into law by Gov. George Deukmejian.
The law, authored by Assemblyman Larry Stirling (R-San Diego), was prompted by complaints to Stirling from employees at San Diego County's Hillcrest mental health hospital.
"The whistle blowers act is a victory for good government and the thousands of honest, hard-working public employees who faithfully do their job," Stirling said. "We have brought a breath of fresh air to the musty corners of the bureaucracy."
The law was signed by Deukmejian Wednesday and goes into effect Jan. 1. It prohibits retaliation or reprisal by superiors or management against public employees who legitimately disclose information about mismanagement, waste of public funds, abuse of authority or a substantial danger to public health or safety.
Retaliation is defined in the act as "intimidation, restraint, coercion, or discrimination against any employee, or applicant for employment, who files a legitimate complaint concerning workplace activities."
Supervisors who are found to have retaliated against employees can be sentenced to a year in jail and fined $10,000.
Current law prohibits retaliation by state officers and employees, but violators are subject only to civil damages or action by the state Personnel Board. It has no provisions for local government whistle blowers.
Stirling said the bill was prompted by the harassment of at least four employees or former employees of the Hillcrest hospital, which came under fire more than a year ago for providing substandard care. The hospital has since lost its eligibility for reimbursement under the federal Medicare program. Investigations of the hospital were prompted in part by Stirling's release of documents and complaints made by hospital employees.
Three of the employees still work for the county and the fourth resigned last year. None of them has complained formally of being harassed.
Stirling's bill was opposed by the San Diego County Board of Supervisors. Marilyn Buck, assistant director of intergovernmental affairs, said the county objected to the criminal penalties attached to the bill.
"Our concern is that the imposition of the criminal penalties would have a chilling effect on the resolve of many supervisors to take appropriate disciplinary action, even when that action would be warranted," Buck said. "You'd have to think twice before doing that."
Stirling said he wasn't concerned about managers being overly cautious.
"If they don't want to go to jail for harassing and abusing whistle blowers, then they shouldn't do it," Stirling said. "If they don't do it, they don't have to worry about the penalties. That's the best safeguard for managers who think this is too big a threat."