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St. Louis County voters asked to strengthen whistleblower protections

The Lawrence K Roos St. Louis County Government Building on Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021, before a press conference on the recent uptick in car break-ins in Clayton.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
The Lawrence K Roos St. Louis County Government Building on Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021, before a press conference on the recent uptick in car break-ins in Clayton.

St. Louis County voters are being asked whether they want to strengthen protections for county employees who want to make allegations of mismanagement public.

The current law protecting whistleblowers was written 20 years ago. The update on the Aug. 2 ballot expands the definition of who is considered a county employee and what can be considered mismanagement and retaliation. It also makes clear that employees can talk to the media. And if it's approved, employees who believe they have faced retaliation for coming forward will have a year to file an appeal, up from 10 days.

“There comes a point where, in order to hold people in power accountable, individuals have to be brave enough and bold enough to call it out,” said William Dailey, the legal adviser for the Ethical Society of Police, which advocates for officers of color in the county police department. “We now have the ability to encourage people to speak boldly and truthfully to those who are abusing those positions."

It was a former member of the Ethical Society who first brought concerns with the county’s current whistleblower law to the attention of the Human Rights Commission in March 2021.

Council Chairwoman Rita Days, D-Bel Nor, twice tried to guide a measure similar to the one on the ballot through the council. Both times, County Executive Sam Page vetoed it. Among his concerns was exposing county employees to “the risk of becoming political fodder for those in state government who want to control local governments.”

“I support updating whistleblower protections through state and local government so long as the updates are done responsibility and in line with other law and best practices,” he said.

Days tried to override Page’s vetoes but was unable to muster the five votes needed. Fifth District Councilwoman Lisa Clancy, D-Maplewood, an ally of Page’s, abstained both times.

To get around Page’s objections, Days turned the proposals into a charter change. A bill placing something on the ballot cannot be vetoed.

“We don’t have time to wait,” Days said in May, when the council voted unanimously to put the issue on the ballot. “I want to make sure that people who work in St. Louis County do not have to work in a toxic environment where they do not feel comfortable coming forward.”

The county is facing a number of lawsuits because potential whistleblowers, many in the police department, claimed they were retaliated against after exposing potential misconduct.

Asked why he believed Days needed to take the issue to the voters, Dailey chuckled.

“Politics,” he said. “We all can accomplish more when we don’t care about who gets the credit.”

Other ballot measures

St. Louis County voters are also being asked whether they want to change the way salaries are set for the county council.

The charter currently sets members' salaries at $20,000, with the chair receiving extra. Proposition M keeps that level of compensation for now but also creates a commission that would meet every five years and make recommendations on pay for council members. The council would then vote on the recommendations without making any changes. Council members could not receive a raise during their current term in office.

A final measure, Proposition V, blocks nominees to head a department, or serve on a board or commission, from holding the position until they are confirmed by the council. The council would be required to act within 30 days of receiving the name of a nominee – if no vote is held, that person would be considered confirmed.

The changes, which take effect Jan. 1, 2023, are in direct response to Faisal Khan remaining as the acting director of the health department despite being rejected by the council in November. Khan will leave the county in September to take a post in Seattle.

All three ballot measures require a simple majority to pass.

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann

Copyright 2022 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Lippmann returned to her native St. Louis after spending two years covering state government in Lansing, Michigan. She earned her undergraduate degree from Northwestern University and followed (though not directly) in Maria Altman's footsteps in Springfield, also earning her graduate degree in public affairs reporting. She's also done reporting stints in Detroit, Michigan and Austin, Texas. Rachel likes to fill her free time with good books, good friends, good food, and good baseball.