Blowing the whistle on whistleblower protections
on October 22, 2013
When Stan Fleury gave comments about workplace bullying at a Richmond Human Rights and Human Relations Commission meeting, he didn’t expect a two-week suspension.
At the meeting, he said a manager in the city attorney’s office bullied a co-worker into performing unethically. This employee was particularly vulnerable to bullying because of a disability: It could be hard for him to find another job, Fleury said during the March meeting.
But when city officials learned of Fleury’s statements, they launched an investigation and found his comments inappropriate, he said.
“It’s been a culture of fear,” said Fleury, a 16-year Richmond employee and a local union steward. “And they know most people here can’t find other jobs and have a lot invested and don’t want to lose their pension.”
The Richmond City Council discussed this issue at last Tuesday’s meeting and decided to clarify the municipal code that protects employees from retaliation for expressing their opinions at public meetings.
Bruce Goodmiller, Richmond’s city attorney, said employees are not discouraged or won’t be disciplined for expressing their personal opinions. “But that doesn’t mean they can come up and speak and violate by harassing, discriminating or retaliating against somebody based on race or national origin,” Goodmiller said at last Tuesday’s city council meeting.
Residents and members of Richmond’s Human Rights and Human Relations Commission are calling on city officials to offer more protection for its employees. And while the city council did reaffirm the code, some say it’s not enough.
“I still don’t feel like we’re safe in speaking about the wrongs that go on here,” said Stacie Plummer, a city employee and Richmond resident.
Plummer is also the whistleblower whose complaint sparked an investigation of former Richmond Assistant City Manager Leslie Knight, for misuse of public money and resources.
An investigation earlier this year affirmed Plummer’s complaint that Knight was using a city car while also receiving a monthly allowance to use her own car for city business. Knight also used employees to make “trinkets” on city time.
While Plummer says it was for a personal business, the investigation found the free gifts were for other employees and Knight didn’t profit. Knight paid the city restitution for the car allowance, and resigned.
City officials then retaliated against Plummer, she said.
“I’m not OK with working in an environment where public corruption is OK,” she said. I’m going to try and fix it as long as I can.”
The whistleblowers contend the city gives preferential treatment to upper management.
Bill Lindsay, Richmond’s city manager, said that’s not true. The city officials have not punished whistleblowers in any way, and rules prohibit retaliation in any form against an employee that makes a complaint, he said.
But both council member Jovanka Beckles and Vivien Feyer, the chair of the Human Rights and Human Relations Commission, consider these cases to be retaliation.
“When there is even the perception of retaliation, that does a disservice to the employees and kills morale,” said Beckles, who sponsored the workplace bullying agenda item at last Tuesday’s council meeting.
“If we don’t stop this, then we are going to be setting ourselves up for really big legal action and that’s concerning. There is a lot that needs to be fixed in regards to the culture in the City of Richmond, and I think this is a start.”
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