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Mayor Blames Election Year Politics for Delays in Whistle-Blower Plan : Government: The main sticking point appears to be disagreements over protections for accusers and the accused.

March 08, 1992|KEN ELLINGWOOD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

WEST HOLLYWOOD — A protracted behind-the-scenes struggle over how to protect West Hollywood City Hall whistle-blowers has splashed into public view with the help of election year politics.

For more than a year, the proposed whistle-blowers' policy has been mired in haggling among the city's three unions, municipal managers and the City Council over exactly how it would work. City administrators circulated a new draft among the unions Thursday after angry accusations by Mayor Paul Koretz that top managers were trying to stall it until after the April 14 election. Koretz is up for reelection at that time.

Koretz, the measure's original sponsor, surprised onlookers at a council meeting Monday when he accused City Manager Paul Brotzman of defying City Council instructions on the measure and threatened to seek Brotzman's removal if the proposed policy did not make progress soon. On Thursday, he criticized the newest draft, saying it was still too weak.

Under the latest proposal, a city employee who feared retaliation from a supervisor could report suspected misconduct to a city-retained investigator, who could direct the employee to follow normal complaint channels or investigate the matter fully and report findings to the City Council. The subject of the complaint could appear before the council then to rebut the charges. Any discipline would follow existing procedures.

Although the idea of protecting whistle-blowers is roundly praised around City Hall, putting details in writing has been divisive. Disagreement has centered on the balance between protecting whistle-blowers and those they accuse and on the exact route that complaints would take.

Supporters of a city whistle-blower policy, which would be among the first of its kind in the state, said it should be tougher than a state law that protects municipal employees who report official wrongdoing. Contracts with two of the city's unions refer to the state law as a way to apply the protections directly to West Hollywood workers.

Negotiators for the union that represents most West Hollywood workers have backed provisions offering maximum anonymity to accusers, although members of two other unions have balked at terms they said would have left staffers open to unsubstantiated charges without a chance to answer them in a timely way.

The issues are complicated by City Hall's internal politics and election season jockeying. Dennis Orfirer, a city hearing examiner who has negotiated on behalf of his union for the broadest whistle-blowing policy, is also Koretz's campaign manager. Both men have been critical of Brotzman's management of the city.

Koretz denied widespread speculation that his outburst, which was televised on cable, was a play for votes. He said the proposal is important to him and might be allowed to die if it is delayed and he were to lose the election. "Management never wanted to see this pass," he said.

Brotzman and Assistant City Manager Bob Edgerly denied that they were opposed to the idea. Both said the issue had stalled because it had been impossible to get the various unions to agree on a specific procedure, despite general agreement on protecting whistle-blowers.

The largest union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Local 3339, which has about 100 members, has pressed in negotiations for a system of strict protections for whistle-blowers--including an anonymous hot line. It would provide an alternative to what Orfirer said is a "reward and punishment system" in City Hall that discourages speaking out against superiors.

Meanwhile, members of the mid-level managers' union have expressed concerns that previous versions of the policy could have been misused by vengeful colleagues because accused employees would not be given a chance to rebut charges before an investigation was complete.

"You don't want a resolution that's so far-reaching that it would have a chilling effect in an environment where there are a lot of diverse opinions," said Debbie Potter, president of the West Hollywood Management Assn., a grouping of about 18 mid-level managers. "This is not strictly a management issue."

Edgerly circulated the new draft of the policy to the unions and council members on Thursday, and he said it might answer those concerns. The matter is scheduled to go before the council on March 16.

Negotiators for WHMA and the 10-member Assn. of Confidential Workers, a group of City Hall employees with access to labor matters, said the new draft appeared promising. But Koretz said that it still did not sufficiently protect the identities of both whistle-blowers and the accused, and it too strongly presses employees to use normal channels, rather than the confidential reporting system. He said it might discourage reporting altogether.

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