The complaint that prompted Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. to open an investigation into the city’s General Services division was an anonymous letter.
Wharton says he gets two to three of the letters a week with varying degrees of detail.
The letter about General Services that triggered the city probe that led to a criminal investigation and charges against several city employees was more detailed than most.
“It was a three or four page letter. They didn’t sign it,” Wharton said. “We were able to take that letter and begin building on it and find people who were willing to talk.”
Wharton said it reflects the value of anonymous complaints as he opens a whistleblower hotline and website for city employees and citizens to make allegations of corruption, waste and mismanagement.
“Let me be clear. The first line of defense is always for employees to communicate with managers and supervisors,” said city of Memphis Human Resources Division Director Quintin Robinson. “But we realize there are times when there are issues that the employee does not want to speak with a member of management about. Or there are issues and concerns the employee has. And they don’t want to bring it to the surface in a public way.”
The hotline is 877-918-2055 and the phone line is at a non-City Hall site off the City Hall phone system. The website is https://cityofmemphis.alertline.com. Both are operated by a third-party provider, Global Compliance.
Complaints go from there to the city’s audit division.
“Once we receive the report and fully investigate the report we will make a written report to the mayor and to the (chief administrative officer) apprising them of what our findings are,” said audit division director Leon Pattman. “We will also put a response back out there so that the individual who filed the report can go online and find the disposition of that particular matter.”
Wharton’s willingness to take and respond to anonymous complaints is an important point that is not without controversy.
The set of local ethics rules required by state law following the 2005 Tennessee Waltz corruption investigation came with plenty of debate about whether ethics panels should accept anonymous complaints. Shelby County Commissioners not only rejected taking anonymous complaints, they moved to exclude the filing of such complaints against elected officials within a certain time near elections.
Meanwhile, Wharton said he accepts this week’s Memphis City Council decision to reject a one-time only, 18-cent property tax hike to close a funding gap in the current city budget and instead use $10 million of the city’s $81.1 million reserve fund.
“I never prefer dipping into the reserves. The council has made that decision,” he said. “We’ll live with it and start spending more of our energy now on the real challenge, which is for fiscal year 2013. We’re going into the budgeting process with a $47 million hole.”