- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 23, 2006

The leader of the nation’s largest independent union of federal workers says a decision by the Merit Systems Protection Board upholding the firing of U.S. Park Police Chief Teresa Chambers is “dangerous to the public safety” because it cut protections afforded to federal whistleblowers.

President Colleen M. Kelley of the National Treasury Employees Union said the board’s 2-1 decision last week “serves the public poorly and undermines the congressional intent evident in the Whistleblower Protection Act, particularly with respect to matters impacting public health and safety.”

The union filed a brief in support of Mrs. Chambers, who had asked the board to overturn her firing. Mrs. Chambers, who had served for six years as chief, was fired in July 2004 by the Interior Department after The Washington Post published an article in which she criticized inadequate funding and staffing levels for Park Police.

Republican board members Neil A.G. McPhie and Mary M. Rose ruled that an employee’s disclosure that an agency policy raises risks to the public health and safety is protected by the whistleblower act “only if the legitimacy of a particular policy choice is not debatable among reasonable people.”

However, Democrat Barbara Sapin said, “policy decisions underlie virtually all matters at issue in disclosures related to public safety dangers, and even the most extensive and thorough consideration cannot preclude any possibility of substantial and specific dangers to the public health and safety.”

In her lengthy dissent, Mrs. Sapin echoed many of the arguments the union made in its amicus brief, adding that the additional requirement imposed by the majority would “discourage employees from making the disclosures Congress sought to encourage them to make.”

The board’s ruling allows Mrs. Chambers to take her legal challenge to federal court.

Richard Condit, general counsel for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), said the organization will “immediately and vigorously pursue” an appeal of what he called an “extremely questionable ruling.”

Ms. Kelley argued that employees should not be required to prove that a policy will endanger the public safety before protecting their rights to speak out on those dangers.

The union represents about 150,000 employees in 30 agencies and departments.

Mrs. Chambers first raised warnings in December 2003 about inadequate funding and staffing. She was suspended and later fired for telling reporters the agency had neither enough officers nor resources to provide adequate security in a post-September 11 world.

PEER noted in a recent report that the National Park Service told Congress in April 2000 that Park Police needed 806 officers. At the time, the agency had 638 officers. Today it has 621.

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