Santa Clara County sees spike in whistleblower complaints, expands office
Santa Clara County Government Center. Photo courtesy of Santa Clara County.

    Improper hiring, employee or employer misconduct, corruption, favoritism and misuse of public resources.

    These are just some of the cases the Santa Clara County Whistleblower Program has taken on since it was established in 2010. But now the county’s watchdog office is expanding by adding new staff and updating the intake system for complaints, many of which are filed anonymously by county employees or the public.

    And the county is scrambling to catch up on years of backlogged complaints.

    “When (the program) was established we were in the middle of the recession,” said Santa Clara County Counsel James Williams in an interview Monday. “It didn’t come with any added staffing resources.”

    The county in 2017 hired a program manager and two investigators to tackle the complaints in-house rather than outsourcing to the different departments. “One of the things we’ve been able to do with the added staffing is work with the backlog of complaints that have built up,” said Williams. “The ones that raised the most concerning issues were prioritized, but others were languishing a little bit.”

    According to county documents, 118 complaints remain unaddressed since 2013, though nearly 40 percent of those represent complaints that were collected in the last year.

    On Thursday, the Office of the County Counsel will provide its twice yearly report on the program’s status and most recent complaints during the county’s Finance and Government Operations Committee meeting.

    In a period dating from June 1 to November 30 of 2018, the county received a total of 75 complaints.

    Nearly two-thirds of the 75 complaints reported concerning personnel matters, such as favoritism, questionable hiring practices and improper interactions with co-workers.

    About a dozen complaints alleged improper delivery of services and the misuse of public resources while 14 complaints were dropped by the office because they either didn’t involve county matters or did not include enough information for an investigation, according to the report.

    A majority of the most recent complaints involve healthcare and county hospitals: 36 percent of the total received. Finance and government related complaints comprised 28 percent and 13 percent were relating to children, seniors and families.

    Public safety and justice complaints represented 5 percent of the complaints received. Same with housing, land use and environment and transportation. The remaining 12 percent were considered to be noncounty matters.

    While Santa Clara County saw a one percent decrease in the number of complaints during the last six months compared to the previous period, the county is reporting an overall spike in complaints since the program began.

    The program received 80 complaints in 2016 and 92 complaints in 2017, compared to 150 total complaints received last year.

    Williams attributes this to better visibility of the program — not an increase of potential corruption at the county.

    “I think the overall number of complaints is up because we’ve been doing more outreach,” Williams said. Once the new intake system is in place, Williams expects an even bigger push to get the word out.

    The focus of most complaints received throughout the years centers around personnel matters.

    For example, a pending complaint dating back to 2016 states that a county contractor was purposely generating work by provoking bad behavior by clients. Another pending 2013 complaint draws attention to an employee who was allegedly running a side business during county work hours.

    All complaints are kept anonymous to protect the whistleblower. The city of San Jose also has an anonymous whistleblower program, though it does not provide reports on the number or nature of complaints.

    The county’s new intake system will allow for greater access for county residents to submit complaints anonymously, county officials said.

    Under the new system, anonymous complainants can track the status of their complaints with a personal identification number, said Program Manager Paul Murphy. The current system doesn’t allow for tracking complaints, so complainants are left in the dark about their inquiry’s status.

    The new system will also allow for complaints in Spanish, Vietnamese, Tagalog and Mandarin.

    “It’s important that the county be accountable to the public and to the taxpayers,” Murphy said.“It’s one more channel that the county’s created.”

    Contact Carina Woudenberg at [email protected] or follow @carinaew on Twitter.

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