Commission Acts to Safeguard Whistleblowers



Commissioner Steve Mulroy and the Shelby County Commission apparently will be doing what they can to prevent future election debacles like the one experienced on Aug. 5.

A commission committee voted 8-0 yesterday to approve a resolution put forward by Mulroy that would extend whistleblower protection for any county employees looking to come forward with information about official impropriety.

“I don’t think you have to be an election reform junkie to think that it’s really important that we get it right,” Mulroy said.

The unanimous vote ensures the resolution will move to a chance to be fully ratified Monday, where Mulroy is confident it will pass.

Tennessee already has whistleblower protection laws in place, but Mulroy felt additional protection was needed to ensure public employees feel safe when reporting actions they deem to be improper.

Current state law only protects employees who have been terminated from their position, reported on clearly defined illegal activity, and who were terminated solely for reporting said illegal activity.

Mulroy’s resolution extends those elements to protect against any adverse employment action, protects any improper activity reported even if it is not necessarily illegal, and states that the reporting need only be a “significant” factor in the adverse action.

Election Commission Chairman Bill Giannini said he thought current protections were sufficient, but that he would support any action that encouraged transparency.

“I’m having a hard time understanding what sort of retribution someone might fear, Giannini said. “That’s been something that’s kind of puzzled me from day one, but, that said, I’ll be all in support of any protection the county commission deems is warranted to protect any employee that comes forward under any situation. I think employees should feel like they don’t have to fear telling the truth about anything.”

The issue of election impropriety and whistleblower protection has been especially prominent lately after the multitude of problems experienced during the Aug. 5 election, during which voter databases were inaccurately uploaded and many citizens were delayed in voting.

The situation spiraling from the fallout has resulted in defeated Democratic candidate Randy Wade claiming he was contacted by an anonymous election commission worker, and Democratic party chairman Van Turner claiming to have been contacted by a second anonymous worker, both claiming to have witnessed improprieties more severe than those admitted by the commission.

Regina Newman, another defeated Democratic candidate from Aug. 5 and former attorney representing the plaintiffs in the ongoing lawsuit, said the lack of adequate whistleblower protection has hindered their ability to move forward in the lawsuit. Both Turner and Wade claim not to know the identity of the informants, making it impossible for them to testify in court.

“We can’t bring these people in to testify if we don’t know who they are,” Newman said.

It seems that Mulroy, Giannini, and the commission would be in favor of more open disclosure of the information claimed by the plaintiffs.

Due to Democrats losing 9 out of 10 elections in August, it would be easy to assume the election issue is a partisan one. However the unanimous passage of this resolution and the attitudes of key officials involved seem to dictate otherwise.

In session, the debate focused on removing language that directly referenced the previous election, and on to whom potential whistleblowers would report.

“The Republicans were getting all bent out of shape,” Mulroy said, “and they just didn’t want to say it that way to call attention to the ongoing election dispute.”

The call for removing the previous election reference was pushed by County Atty. Kelly Rayne, a longtime employee of Democratic Mayor A C Wharton, Jr., who now reports to newly elected County Mayor Mark Luttrell, a Republican.

“It’s been disappointing to see the partisan talk about the commission,” Giannini said. “From day one the commission has been unified on every point with both Democrats and Republicans. It helps the media gain viewership or readership to claim that there’s some partisan event to this but there’s not, and there never has been.”

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