Whistleblower or leaker?

Aug. 10, 2013 @ 04:05 PM

What’s the difference between a whistleblower and a leaker?

That may just depend on whom you ask.

Ask Heather Mullis and her co-workers at Union County’s wastewater plants and, well, they might not say anything at all today. But a week ago, they would have told you they went public with problems in the county operation to save their jobs, or at least save their reputations, and to let the public know the whole story of how wastewater operations had lapsed into disarray.

Without saying anything publicly, the county made requests for proposals to find a private company to take over day-to-day operations of its wastewater utilities. County officials met with sewer plant workers and told them they were aiming for a December 18 changeover, at which time the workers would become employees of a private company. They would lose their county benefits and any job security.

Then came the news coverage with the county public works chief describing lapses so severe and deep into the operation that radical action was needed.

That news came as no surprise. Mullis and her co-workers had been complaining to supervisors at the plant for months and watching as problems went unaddressed and equipment unrepaired under the hand of a former manager who failed to even answer letters from a state agency. They said he seemed more concerned with pinching pennies than meeting standards. It was so bad the N.C. Department of Natural Resources fined the county for its violations.

When the county management finally did react, its answer was to broadly characterize the failures as irretrievable, even though Mullis and others worked directly with the state agency to correct all the deficiencies.

So with their jobs and futures at risk – and with the county about to divest itself of sewer plant operation without any public discussion – the workers decided to take their case to the taxpayers who foot the bill for it all. They blew the whistle.

For their efforts, they were greeted last week with a refresher course from management on the county’s media policy. They had seen it before. Actually all county employees have. New hires get the policies at orientation. This time, they were also asked to sign an acknowledgement form that affirms they had gotten the policy, read it, understood it and had a chance to ask questions.

Acknowledgement forms have little value for employees, but are treasured by Human Relations types and lawyers because they obviate any claim of ignorance should an employee file a wrongful termination claim in court.

So was this merely a teachable moment for the county to instruct employees or was it intimidation? You be the judge.

But do know that the county’s media policy is less about transparency than it is about protecting its image. It encourages employees “to be responsive to and work with members of the media in providing information” yet repeatedly warns them to direct even routine inquiries to division directors. It also instructs them that they “should not” speak to a reporter or editor about a sensitive or controversial issue without authorization. Sensitive items are defined as everything from personnel issues to the county budget.

Despite these restrictions and dangers, sewer plant employees believed that the public should know what was happening. Their actions served both their personal interests and the interests of the public with whom they shared the information. Their willingness to speak up should be applauded. If their supervisors had listened earlier, perhaps none of this would ever have happened.