City Council 

Protecting whistleblowers

A new proposal from Missoula City Councilman Adam Hertz aims to provide recourse for city staffers who sound the alarm about problems in municipal business.

"I wanted to make sure that employees felt comfortable coming forward," he says.

Hertz crafted his proposed whistleblower policy largely in response to discrepancies discussed by accountants in a 2011 audit of city finances. Accountants with the Missoula-based consulting firm, Anderson Zurmuehlen, cautioned that data used by Missoula budget crunchers to support city financial statements has differed from amounts used in supporting documents.

"That's a huge red flag," Hertz says. "I'm just concerned when the auditor says there's a serious lack of controls."

Hertz aims to use the whistleblower policy to encourage city staffers to speak up if they see that the city has engaged in, as his draft legislation says, "incorrect financial reporting" or "gross waste of funds."

Missoula's Finance Director Brentt Ramharter supports crafting a whistleblower policy, but not for the reasons that Hertz cites. Ramharter says the discrepancies discussed in the 2011 audit actually date back to 2010, when the budget deliberations dragged on until about one month before the mandatory audit. Facing a significant time crunch, Ramharter acknowledges that errors were made. Since then, he says Mayor John Engen has expedited the budget process, which has helped remedy past problems.

As for the whistleblower proposal, Ramharter agrees that protections are a good idea. He bases that statement on findings from Anderson Zurmuehlen, which found during interviews with city staffers that employees want a safer means to express a range of grievances. As far as Ramharter knows, however, none of those grievances stemmed from accounting concerns.

"They're saying for an organization our size we should have something in place so there is a predictable way that people can deal with something if they have a complaint," Ramharter says.

State law already protects whistleblowers to some extent. The city's Administration and Finance Committee will, in the coming weeks, debate adding an extra layer for city employees.

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