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SLO County's whistleblower hotline has brought in 27 complaints so far

Jim Erb
Jim Erb jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

The San Luis Obispo County auditor’s office released quarterly results of its whistleblower hotline Tuesday, and though it only fully agreed with one complaint — a misspelling on county letterhead — two reports led the county to re-examine how it disposes of material from its storm drainage cleanup program.

Neither finding is considered serious, county officials say, and the disposal procedure is expected to be fully studied in the coming month.

The anonymous hotline was launched in November 2013 for county employees and residents to report financial fraud, waste and abuse. Those reports are reviewed by the Auditor-Controller-Treasurer-Tax-Collector’s Office in conjunction with County Counsel, Human Resources and the heads of any affected departments.

Since its launching, the hotline has received a total 27 reports of alleged abuse. A majority of those reports — 17 calls — came in during the last quarter of the fiscal year 2013-14, which ended June 30.

Those reports involved allegations of conflicts of interest, payroll fraud and theft, safety violations, theft of county property, waste of county time by employees and employee misconduct.

Of those complaints, six were found to be unsubstantiated, three were referred to department directors for follow-up, two were referred to Human Resources, and three had nothing to do with county resources, according to the report.

Auditor-Controller-Treasurer-Tax Collector Jim Erb said the only fully confirmed report was that of a simple spelling error on the county’s Tax Status Notification letter, which is sent out to residents behind on property taxes. Specifically, a caller noticed the word “assistant” spelled “asistant.”

Erb said the department has had a lot of letterhead changes since the August 2013 consolidation of the Auditor-Controller and the Treasurer-Tax Collector’s offices, and the missing letter has been corrected.

But two reports were found by county staff to be “partially substantiated” and involved disposal procedures of substances related to the County Public Works’ Department’s storm drainage cleanup program. That procedure has been temporarily suspended as staff conducts a review.

Public Works Department Interim Director Dave Flynn said questions raised about the disposal of byproducts of the storm drainage cleanup program appear to be benign, but that staff is currently working with a consultant to study any possible safety or environmental problems.

Flynn said the complaints involved how the county disposes of material collected by vactor trucks — trucks fitted with heavy-duty vacuums to suck up materials when cleaning drainage ditches or culverts, which also serve as an alternative to digging in certain underground projects.

Once material is retrieved, it is taken via truck to a county-owned property where it is released to dry-out in a pit, a process known as decanting, Flynn said.

The reports noted concern of a possibility of hydrocarbons and metals in the dried-out material which could represent a hazard, but Flynn said most of the byproduct is soil-based.

“There was concern about what was left in those materials,” Flynn said.

He added that should there be any hazards found in the current procedures, staff has already identified alternatives.

The clock is ticking; Flynn said the manner of disposal needs to be addressed before the winter rains, in order to comply with the county’s storm water permit.

The Whistleblower Hotline includes a toll-free hotline number (855-326-9623) and a website (http://reportlineweb.com/sanluisobispo), which are accessible 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and are administered by a third-party vendor.

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