California legislative staff should be given whistleblower protection

150 150 Phillip Ung

(photo: Alno/Wikimedia Commons)

For 20 years, the California Whistleblower Protection Act has protected civil servants from retaliation as a result of reporting improper governmental activity or being ordered to violate the law as part of their employment. The vast majority of states throughout the country also have such laws which are proven to root out waste, fraud, abuse, bribery, and other violations of public trust.

Whistleblower protection laws make perfect sense: step forward to report abuse of power or waste of taxpayer funds and you will be shielded from retribution by your supervisors, coworkers, or political leaders.

However, one key sector of California public servants has been proactively left out of these common sense protections. Deep within the state Whistleblower Protection Act is a single sentence stating “[e]mployee means an individual…who is not a Member of employee of the Legislature.”

With that sentence, thousands of honorable public servants who work the Legislature were exempted and could suffer from retaliation for reporting violations of public trust. The result is a work environment where employees who have knowledge of wrongdoing yet stay quiet lest they lose their livelihood or credibility.

This exemption can be remedied through the passage of Assembly Bill 2065, jointly authored by Assembly Members Melissa Melendez (R-Lake Elsinore), Jeff Gorell (R-Camarillo), and Cristina Garcia (D-Bell Gardens). 

The State Senate also has its own whistleblower proposal that is set to be adopted into the Senate Rules. The Senate proposal is a noble effort and could provide the right protections for Senate staff. However, it is too narrow as it is exclusive only to Senate staff and not the legislative body as a whole. Additionally, house rules do not carry the force of law and provide staff the civil remedies if retaliation does occur.

AB 2065 will not only extend protections to employees of the Senate and Assembly, but also the staff of the Legislative Counsel and Legislative Analyst who do not belong to any single house.

Legislative staff work at the ground level of public policy development and budget writing. Staff knowledge of state programs, agencies, and their interaction with interest groups makes them invaluable cogs of the state’s policy making machine. It is the unique nature of legislative work that also makes staff the perfect candidates for whistleblower protection. They see and hear everything, even the unfortunate dark side of politics.

The California Whistleblower Protection Act has served the public well throughout its history. Protecting those who protect the public trust against those who wish to violate it just simply works. Legislative staff should be brought into the fold.

Phil Ung is the Director of Public Affairs for California Forward


Phillip Ung

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