The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly approved an ordinance that specifically protects whistleblowers from discrimination at its meeting Tuesday night. The new policy mirrors state statute, but the measure wasn’t approved without some contentious debate.
Until now, the borough didn’t have a specific policy on the books to protect whistleblowers. This ordinance was sponsored by Assembly members Kelly Cooper and Hal Smalley.
At its core, the new ordinance simply protects borough employees or people who might bid to do business with the borough, from unfair treatment if they call attention to a matter of public concern. In this case, a matter of public concern could be a danger to health or safety, a violation of law or official misconduct. The path to file a report would go through the mayor’s office when possible, or through a public body like the assembly.
During Tuesday afternoon’s meeting of the Policies and Procedures Committee, Cooper said the new ordinance would, in part, help ensure all borough employees up to speed on the most recent workplace conduct practices.
“We needed to have language in there. And during the conversation at the (ordinance’s) introduction, I found it more encouraging to implement this when there were questions asked if our new HR director had trainings on whistleblower and sexual harassment. And we did not. So if we can bring some of those into our local code, it makes it easier and a more consistent process as we go through our training. It’s a very simple ordinance and I can’t imagine anyone would have a concern with us being this transparent.”
“I’d like to challenge your perception of transparency if I could, with all due respect," countered Mayor Charlie Pierce.
“Is this not the MeToo practice being applied? Or it feels like we ought to do it? I would rather hear from you and see some specific examples as to why you would want to do this and I would respectfully request that you be brutally honest with us.”
Cooper said later during the regular assembly meeting that this is not a reaction to the MeToo movement. Pierce’s main concern was that because the proposed borough policy so closely resembles state statute, it’s redundant and perhaps not necessary.
“What I’d say is you tied up the legal department for the better part of a day and a half or two days to write this thing, to researching the existing state policy and it basically says what’s been written here. It’s no different. So what I’m saying is if you have a specific reason why you need redundancy, and additional code placed in the books, we’ve got many of those that we don’t use today, where people have tied up the legal department, tied up administration, never even inquired or talked with administration about it. And you’re generating unnecessary costs by placing this on the books and I think it’s wasteful.”
“If you’d like to talk to me about wasteful legal costs, I’d certainly be happy to talk to you, but we probably don’t want to go there," Cooper said.
The borough is wrestling with lots of additional legal costs right now. Cooper was referencing a discrimination lawsuit against the borough and Pierce filed by former HR director Stormy Brown. There is also the $70,000 in legal fees the borough will pay after appealing lower court decisions regarding an invocation policy that was found to be unconstitutional.
Assembly member Norm Blakely moved to table the whistleblower ordinance, citing the discrimination suit. That motion failed and the ordinance was adopted by a vote of 8-1.