(photo courtesy of Touchstone Pictures) Famous whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand as portrayed by Russell Crowe in Michael Mann‘s “The Insider.”
It’s a phrase often muttered to children. At school, at the playground, even at home: “Don’t tattle tale, it’s not nice.”
Well, city leaders in Sacramento are asking folks to do the opposite and blow the whistle on any city employee, including city council members, they see as part of waste or corruption in city hall.
“Have we received a complaint that identifies something that would save the city millions of dollars? Nothing like that has come forward yet, but there’s always that potential,” said Jorge Oseguera, City Auditor. “We’re always interested in employees or citizens coming forward with something they are concerned about. So if savings can be identified or inappropriate behavior can be stopped, we do our best to try to accommodate that.”
The Whistleblower Hotline launched a little more than a year ago, although promotion of the toll free number and web report form (that is now being managed by a third party which can guarantee anonymity) only began recently.
“It has been a very good benefit of providing the hotline in this manner. People are more comfortable coming forward if they do not have to reveal their identity,” said Oseguera.
To date, there have been more than 100 calls. The auditor reports the findings in a report, every six months.
“We’ve been able to conduct several investigations, a few of which, we’ve been able to substantiate and I think by informing the employees and the citizens of Sacramento of this new service, we’re able to provide a very useful deterrent to employees committing acts that are inappropriate, knowing that someone can anonymously report that inappropriate activity through the hotline.”
In 2012, the city was rocked by scandal. Headlines on newspapers and on local TV newscast read, “Credit card corruption by city staffers.”
“This is a great example that we would hope we’d see coming through the hotline in the future,” said Oseguera.
“The types of calls we’ve already received goes to show that the whistleblower hotline does provide a benefit and a good service to the city that is worthwhile.
Hiring an outside operator costs the city $10,000 a year. Some would argue over the need of the service if there’s already a 3-1-1 line or other ways of reporting waste and corruption.
City councilman and audit committee chair Allen Warren disagrees.
“Well if you take it in context, the cost of running the program right now is about $10,000 so it’s not a very expensive program. We get generally 8-12 calls a month about potential issues. I think because people know that this program is in place, if there is a situation that’s questionable, it will give that person pause. I think it’s working pretty well right now.”
The council believes the hotline serves as a deterrent.
“This program allows people to report questionable behavior without the fear of retribution,” said the councilman. “It could be as simple as someone taking the company car to places they shouldn’t go to HR problems to time card issues.”
“One issue could save the city hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions.”
The core nature of the hotline creates more transparency and accountability.
“It adds to our transparency as we report every six months publicly on the activity and the types of complaints that are coming through. It’s also holds employees accountable as the hotline is a deterrent for those types of inappropriate activities,” said Oseguera.
“The goal is obviously transparency making sure people know we’re trying to operate in the best interest of city government and the city in general. It’s something that we see as one of a number of tools that can help us minimize exposure,” said Warren.
The auditor hopes as more people become familiar with the hotline, they will feel comfortable to look at the behavior of people they put in place to serve the public and report it.
“As employees and citizens become more comfortable with the program, we’ll be able to point to examples of how the hotline was used to prevent or stop inappropriate activity and how the city conducts its business and as that reputation continues to grow, the program itself will become a bigger success,” said Oseguera.