CLAYTON — Council Chair Rita Heard Days said Monday she expected to send a whistleblower protection bill vetoed by County Executive Sam Page to voters, as two key police officers’ organizations both said they support the measure.
Days first proposed the legislation last year, arguing it would stop discrimination or retaliatory behavior against county employees reporting misconduct, citing a slew of lawsuits that included several high-profile cases originating in the police department.
But Councilwoman Lisa Clancy, D-5th District, argued the bill won’t meet that goal in its current form because it doesn’t specify that it applies to the county’s police force, which is overseen by the Board of Police Commissioners, an independent five-member panel appointed by the executive.
Whistleblower complaints for merit employees are reported to the Civil Service Commission.
“It’s innocuous at this point unless the police are explicitly named,” Clancy said. “What she leaves out is the bigger piece which is about what police officers do if they have complaints. It is not clear which body they go to, it is not clear that this is implementable by the police department, which renders it useless.”
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Days’ measure, while including a broad definition of employees, does not specifically mention police. She said it was unnecessary.
“Every employee is a part of this legislation,” said Days, a Democrat who represents the council’s 1st District.
She argued the bill should not explicitly mention police officers because that would interfere with the authority of the Board of Police Commissioners, which she said could promulgate its own rules.
“I did not want to upend any of the processes they currently use or how they react to their officers. I don’t want to take any privileges or authority that the commission has. That’s not the purpose of this legislation.”
Board of Police Commissioners Chairman Brian Ashworth did not respond to a request for comment. The commission has not discussed the bill during public meetings.
Asked for comment, the St. Louis County Police Association, the bargaining representative for county police officers, and the Ethical Society of Police, a group supporting Black and nonwhite officers, both said that they support the measure.
Joe Patterson, SLPCA executive director, said the association supported the bill, but was awaiting a legal opinion from attorneys about whether it would immediately apply to officers or require an order from the Board of Police Commissioners.
“The St. Louis County Police Association wholeheartedly supports whistleblower protections for all county employees. We believe as a matter of good policy the Board of Police Commissioners should have buy-in and we know they care greatly for our police employees and would support these protections,” Patterson said.
In a statement, ESOP said the bill “doesn’t impede on officers’ existing rights or eliminate avenues for filing grievances within the police department.”
“What this bill does is create the responsibility for county government to take action when retaliation occurs,” the organization said.
The whistleblower legislation is expected to pass with support from a bipartisan council majority that includes Days, Councilman Tim Fitch, R-3rd District, Councilman Mark Harder, R-7th District, and Councilwoman Shalonda Webb, D-4th District. It would appear on the Aug. 2 ballot.
Fitch, a former county police chief and ally of Days on the council, said Monday that he considered the bill to apply to police like other county employees. But he said the Board of Police Commissioners could issue rules, if necessary, applying the whistleblower protections to the police department as it has for other ordinances, including a requirement to vaccinate employees against COVID-19.
Days said she would ask the council to approve an amended bill Tuesday that would add to changes that had been suggested by Clancy: One would require annual workplace training for county employees on the whistleblower protections, and another would extend the length of time employees would have to file a complaint with the Civil Service Commission to 100 days, up from 10 days currently.
The changes follow a meeting Days and Clancy held last week to try to negotiate a compromise bill.
A 2017 state law provides whistleblower protections, but Days has said she wants to go further than the state law in updating the county’s own whistleblower ordinance, which was last revised in 1997.
Page had argued the bill was too broad and unclear as to how it would affect the Board of Police Commissioners’ process for workplace discrimination complaints. Page had also taken issue with language specifying the county couldn’t bar employees from testifying under legislative subpoena, arguing it would leave the county subject to politically-motivated subpoenas from the Legislature.
The council majority couldn’t get the necessary fifth vote to override Page’s veto, but a ballot question cannot be vetoed.
Page spokesman Doug Moore said the executive wants “a good bill” and that “there should be no ambiguity” in it.
“We want a good bill and I know that council members Clancy and Days are working toward that end” Moore said. “Whistleblower legislation needs to protect all employees and the should be no ambiguity on an issue this important.”
Clancy and Days met last week privately to discuss the disputed bill. Days had wanted to include longtime police union attorney and lobbyist Jane Dueker — who is challenging Page in the August Democratic primary — but Clancy objected.
Days on Monday denied any conflict of interest and said Dueker “wanted to make sure that the police officers were not unintentionally affected by the legislation — that their rights would be protected as well.”