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May. 21, 2022 | Saturday
Editorials and Opinions
Editorial: Town needs to protect whistleblowers

In the digital information age, there are few secrets that don’t eventually find their way into the public realm.

That’s usually because someone, somewhere knows the truth or knows when some sort of illicit shenanigans have gone on.

That applies to everything from Watergate to the ethical mess that transpired in recent years at the Region of Niagara.

In the old days, that could mean compiling pages and pages of documents as evidence of perceived malfeasance or bad behaviour. Now those same mountains of documents literally can be moved at the click of a mouse.

Times have changed and now, in an era in which “transparency” is a not just a buzzword but a mantra in public life, we need to revisit how some of the affairs of public governance are overseen.

When it comes to whistleblower policies – protecting people who come forward, sometimes anonymously, with tips, evidence or allegations about problems in government, commerce or other organizations – some institutions are leading the way.

As it stands now, at the Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, there are no independent mechanisms in place that mirror the accepted best practices of whistleblower policies. We hope that will change.

Requiring an employee to go to the human resources department or a senior executive is not the way to encourage openness and transparency on matters of internal problems. Sometimes, unfortunately, the very people in an organization to whom an unprotected whistleblower might have to spill the beans are the “bad guys.”

We’re not suggesting for a moment that is the case at the Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, but there certainly are relevant instances in which this has occurred elsewhere.

Just this week, the Toronto Star reported that after information technology staff found sexually explicit pictures on the work computer of the CEO of the Canadian Internet Registration Authority, the IT workers ended up losing their jobs. Not the CEO.

The workers reported what happened and they became the victims. On the face of it, that seems ludicrous.

Fortunately, now, that obscure Ottawa agency (which oversees the ".ca" internet domain) has adopted a proper whistleblower policy that utilizes an independent third party to investigate such complaints.

As The Lake Report’s story on page 1 this week shows, in Niagara, several municipal governments and the once-ethically challenged regional municipality, have enacted proper whistleblower policies, or are in the process of adopting them.

Proper policies ensure that vindictive, malicious allegations are avoided and that thorough, independent investigations are carried out.

With luck, the whistleblower policy will seldom, if ever, be invoked. But knowing it is readily available to employees of the Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, is an important step toward transparency and full accountability.

When problems deserve to have a light shone on them, it is essential that employees be confident that their voice will be heard by an independent arbiter and that those in power will not be able to quash investigations just because they might hit too close to home.

With so many other things on their plate at the moment – including wrestling with a mammoth budget increase and actively overseeing several court cases – perhaps it is not top of mind for NOTL councillors.

However, we hope that come the new year, our elected officials will recognize our town needs to get with the times and move forward in adopting its own, comprehensive, effective whistleblower policy.