Council committee strengthens City whistleblower code
SEATTLE – The City Council’s Government Performance and Finance Committee voted unanimously this morning to pass legislation that encourages and affirms the important role of public employee whistleblowers. The bill expands the definition of whistleblowers and moves the investigation of retaliation claims from the Mayor’s office to the independent Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission (SEEC).
"Public service is a high calling and we must hold ourselves to high standards," said Councilmember Tim Burgess, chair of the committee and former Ethics and Elections Commission Chair. "By clarifying employee rights, responsibilities and protections, we allow City employees to proudly serve the public interest without fear of retaliation."
Last updated in 1994, the current whistleblower code directs an employee to report retaliation to the Mayor’s office, which can then ask the employee’s department—often the original alleged retaliator—to investigate. Shifting the investigatory responsibilities to the independent SEEC strengthens confidentiality protections and the integrity of the investigation.
"This bill represents a significant step to protect public servants who report improper government action," said Bill Sherman, Chair of the Ethics and Elections Commission. "It will result in a more effective City government and a better workplace."
The legislation changes the definition of a whistleblower to include employees who are perceived to have reported improper governmental activity. It also gives protection from retaliation if they try to report improper action first within their departments rather than the SEEC.
Furthermore, the legislation expands the remedies available to employees should they prove retaliation, including emotional distress damages of up to $20,000. Employees who have submitted a timely and sufficient complaint to the SEEC may also file a civil action in court should their position as a whistleblower lead them to not trust the City’s administrative process.
The legislation will be considered for final adoption by the Full Council on Monday, December 9.