Steamboat Springs A bill introduced in the Colorado state legislature could encourage more local government employees to report mismanagement and other malfeasance without fear of retribution from their bosses.
The bill, from State Rep. Daniel Kagan, D-Cherry Hills Village, would give city, county and school district employees in Colorado the same whistleblower protections state employees currently enjoy.
He said the new law would ultimately protect local government employees from retaliation for reporting violations of laws, waste or misuse of public funds, fraud, an abuse of authority, mismanagement or a danger to the health or safety of students, employees or the public.
He added the new law would also make it easier for employees who feel they have been targeted for retaliation in such instances to file a complaint and receive restitution.
"Some local governments already do have protections for whistleblowers within their ranks, but some don't," Kagan said. "That, to me, is inadequate — to allow a local government to decide for itself whether they may retaliate for certain things or disclosures.
"If we are serious about trying to bring to light waste, fraud, abuse and mismanagement, we should say 'yeah, if someone brings that to light, you can't shut them down."
Asked about what protections it has on the books for whistleblowers, the city of Steamboat Springs cited its Personnel and Administrative Regulations Manual, which includes a policy that states the city will not retaliate against a person who reports any kind of harassment.
Whistleblowers are not specifically referenced in the manual, and there is no specific mention of protections for employees who report such things as mismanagement.
Currently, Kagan said, local government employees who feel they have been retaliated against for disclosing government malfeasance must bring a suit in federal court claiming their First Amendment rights have been violated.
"The fact is, that's untenable for most people to make a federal case out of it every time they are victims of retaliation," Kagan said.
Under his bill, local government employees who feel they have been retaliated against for exposing malfeasance would be able to file a complaint with an administrative law judge within 90 days.
The judge would then either dismiss the complaint if it were found not to be credible or make an award ranging from reinstatement for someone who's been fired to damages.
If the judge rules against the employee, the employee would be able to take his or her case to district court.
Kagan said the law would not expand the number of judges or state employees who deal with cases involving whistleblowers.
Asked if he has received feedback on the law from advocacy groups that lobby for the interests of cities, such as the Colorado Municipal League, Kagan said he has heard some concerns.
"Municipalities are saying we do provide (this protection) already, and in some cases, there are some cases of protection, but not in all cities, and there should be," Kagan said. "They have pointed out that the federal remedies are available to everybody, but I don't think that's adequate."
Two former Steamboat Springs police officers recently criticized city and county officials for the way they were treated after they accused the former leaders of the Steamboat Springs Police Department of presiding over a hostile work environment.
An investigator largely confirmed the former cops' claims and concluded there was evidence the department was being run by "fear and intimidation," and gender-based harassment had likely been occurring for more than a decade.
Former Detective Dave Kleiber, whose letter to the community sparked the investigation, was subsequently investigated by the district attorney's office for alleged perjury related to a criminal investigation he investigated while a detective.
An attorney representing Kleiber called the claim "outrageous" and said the investigation "seems to be a great way to smear someone who has tried to clean up some things in our community that needed cleaning up."
After former Steamboat Springs police officer Kristin Bantle shared her perceptions that there was a hostile work environment at the police department and possible gender discrimination, she told former City Manager Deb Hinsvark she was "deeply concerned about reprisal" and requested whistleblower status.
She was referred to the city's personnel policy manual and its prohibition of retaliation against employees for reporting harassment.
Bantle, who was fired from the police department in August, is threatening to sue the city for wrongful termination and retaliation.
She is also threatening to sue Routt County, claiming she was "maliciously prosecuted" for allegedly lying about drug use on an employment application with the Routt County Sheriff's Office.
A jury recently exonerated Bantle on the charge of attempting to influence a public servant in that case.
Bantle said Monday she believes local government must do more to make it easier for its employees to blow the whistle and expose wrongdoing.
"The events of the past year should give everyone concern about the difficulties one can face while exposing misconduct of people in power," Bantle said. "It would seem to me the city has quite a bit of work to do in its' efforts to restore employee and community trust."
Kagan's whistleblower bill is scheduled to be heard in committee Feb. 3.
To reach Scott Franz, call 970-871-4210, email scottfranz@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottFranz10