Palo Alto's city workers will soon have a new tool for reporting fraud, waste and abuse at City Hall -- a hotline that would allow them to file complaints without disclosing their names.
The City Council's Policy and Services Committee last week endorsed a proposal by the City Auditor's Office to create an anonymous hotline that would be available to city employees 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The hotline was recommended by a 2008 audit of the city's ethics policies.
The new hotline would be instituted on a pilot basis between Jan. 1, 2012, and June 30, 2013. The council would receive quarterly updates from the city auditor about the hotline.
Michael Edmonds, the city's interim city auditor, told the committee Thursday night that the hotline would be managed by an outside vendor at a cost of $3,000 to $6,000 a year. It would cost an additional $2,000 or so to get the hotline up and running, he said.
The goal is to give whistle-blowers, who would otherwise feel uncomfortable to step forward, a new tool to do so.
"I do know fraud, waste and abuse does occur in private agencies and public entities and hotlines have proven to be an effective tool for identifying fraud and deterring fraud," Edmonds said at the Thursday night meeting. "I think a lot of complaints about fraudulent activities do come from tips, mainly through employee tips."
The city also plans to institute a complaint-review committee consisting of representatives from the offices of the city manager, the city auditor and the city attorney, to review complaints.
In a report, City Manager James Keene said the city already has various policies that allow workers to file complaints, including the traditional route through the Human Resources Department. The only major difference is that the new hotline would allow anonymity, which officials agreed isn't necessarily a good thing. Though the city already gets anonymous complaints once in a while, the hotline would "formalize" the process, Keene said.
During the Thursday discussion, some members had some concerns about the prospect of anonymous complainers levying unfounded but harmful charges against their colleagues. Larry Klein said the city is "providing a backup mechanism for someone to act on a grudge." Keene said that he believes anonymity, in general, is not a good thing because it makes it harder to achieve accountability.
Keene also said he hopes the hotline would constitute only a small percentage of the complaints the city receives.
"I think making anonymous complaints has its own side effects in the organization," Keene said.
The hotline would assign complainants numbers and provide a mechanism for the vendor overseeing the line to contact the person filing the complaint.
The committee unanimously recommended proceeding with the pilot project, with Chairwoman Gail Price saying the new hotline could be a "useful mechanism" for reporting fraud, waste and abuse. Councilwoman Karen Holman agreed.
"In a perfect world, people would be able to address issues directly, but culturally or experientially, people don't always feel comfortable with that," Holman said. "This provides a means or an avenue that's complementary to the other processes we have in place."