County Commissioners address anonymous correspondence

On the same day that the Alachua Board of County Commissioners approved amendments to a whistle-blower ordinance, they also spelled out where they stand on anonymous communication.

The BOCC unanimously approved the amendment to Chapter 23 of the County Code at the March 10 regular meeting. The amendment establishes Article III, “creating an administrative procedure to handle whistle-blower complaints and authorize the Chair to sign.”

The ordinance states, “Employees or other persons who have information concerning the following categories are required to disclose that information to either the County Manager or the County Attorney:

“Any violation or suspected violation of any federal, state, or local law, rule or regulation committed by an employee or agent of an agency or independent contractor which creates and presents a substantial and specific danger to the public’s health, safety, or welfare.” 

The ordinance also requires reporting of, “Any act or suspected act of gross mismanagement, malfeasance, misfeasance, gross waste of public funds, suspected or actual Medicaid fraud or abuse, or gross neglect of duty committed by an employee or agent of an agency or independent contractor.”

Section 23 of the ordinance also addresses information disclosure, investigating procedures, that retaliation is prohibited and that persons are protected.

The ordinance also offers a second way to file a report. “Alternatively, the information may be disclosed to the Equal Opportunity Office directly in person, or by any other reporting mechanism established by the Equal Opportunity Manager.”

Later in the meeting during the approval of evaluations for the County Manager and County Attorney, Commissioner Marihelen Wheeler brought up the issue of anonymous correspondence she has received concerning County management and other issues but declined to go into specifics.

“Some of these anonymous letters that we are getting,” Wheeler said. “I feel that it’s pretty seventh grade. I would like very much for there not to be any more anonymous letters coming here.”

She then offered to meet with anyone with concerns. “I would like to offer myself to anyone who feels badly about what is happening from our offices here,” she said about morale or communication issues.

“I feel badly that we are getting this kind of feedback to people who I feel are doing a really good job.”

Wheeler then said she would like to see encouragement of “more exit interviews to find out why people leave employment with the County,” and she acknowledged that there is some area of concern that she would like to find out more about what is going on.

Commission Chair Robert Hutchinson addressed the issue next. “I think people have the right to write anonymous letters,” he said. “We can read them or not. There are times when people truly do fear retribution. We have a process for whistle blowers now, that I think is much more clear,” he added and emphasized that the exit interview process as a way to solve any problems.

Vice Chair Mike Byerly agreed with Hutchinson. “Every organization has problems,” he said. “In terms of anonymous communications, the only thing I do pay attention carefully are verifiable statements of fact. 

“If someone is to communicate with me anonymously for any reason as a commissioner, I will read it,” Byerly said. “I will listen to it and if you have something specific to say that I can confirm is a problem, then I will take that seriously. Everything else, if you are not willing to attach your name to your statements of opinion and character assassinations, then I’m not interested.

“I understand there may be times when a person simply feels they cannot put their name on it. They need to call attention to something that is happening, and I will evaluate that if it’s something I can verify.”

Commissioner Ken Cornell said, “I agree on anonymous letters. I don’t put a lot of weight on them.

“When folks speak to me, I put a lot of weight on them. We now have policies and procedures to protect them when they speak to us,” he said, referring to the Whistle-blower Ordinance. We are going through some stuff and we’re going to solve that.”

Commissioner Charles Chestnut IV agreed with Wheeler. “I just want to make it known to the public I put no weight on those letters,” he said. “If you can’t put your name on it and be a man or a woman to state your feelings to me, if you do it anonymously, I just ignore it.

“I’ll just be honest with you,” Chestnut said. “I have no time to waste my energy in to knowing who I’m not talking to. 

“If you come to me as an individual and sit down with me and talk to me then I’ll start listening to you and then ask questions to the manager about what’s going on. If you do it anonymously, I’m not going to entertain it.”

To review the Whistle Blower ordinance, go here.

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