Sexual harassment workgroup recommends new independent office to investigate misconduct

Dec 7, 2018

Following eight months of meetings, a workgroup on the prevention of sexual harassment in the Washington state House is recommending the formation of an independent office where victims could report misconduct.

The recommendation is part of a package of suggested reforms forwarded this week to House leaders for their consideration. The workgroup is also recommending that the House:

*Adopt a new code of conduct that all House members and staff would be required to sign, and lobbyists would have to sign to be in good standing with the state's Public Disclosure Commission.

*Require mandatory training for House members and staff on the code of conduct, respectful workplace policy and avenues for reporting harassment.

*Require an additional five hours of "elective" respectful workplace training per year on topics such as peer-to-peer counseling and bystander training.

*Create a training advisory committee to develop and approve trainings.

In a letter to House leadership, members of the workgroup wrote, "We hope that these recommendations will foster a safe and respectful environment for the entire legislative community."

The letter notes that while the recommendations have the "general consensus" of the full workgroup, two unnamed members are concerned "about the liability, logistics and costs" of creating a separate independent reporting entity. 

The workgroup included members of the House administration, state lawmakers from both parties, partisan and nonpartisan legislative staff and lobbyists. One of those lobbyists, Rebecca Johnson, praised the recommendations as representing the "best thinking" of the workgroup. She said she's especially pleased about the proposal for an independent place to report harassment.

"The goal of the independent resource is to have an expert that's outside of the institutional structures that someone can safely go to and say, 'I'd like to share my experience confidentially,'" Johnson said. 

Johnson also said the code of conduct could help establish a "shared understanding of what's acceptable and what's appropriate on campus." 

Last fall, Johnson spearheaded a "Stand With Us" letter that was ultimately signed by more than 200 women. The letter called on Legislative leadership to lead a change in the culture at the Capitol. Subsequently, Johnson and others proposed the idea of a "safe, neutral place" to report misconduct. 

Those efforts followed reporting by the public radio Northwest News Network and The News Tribune that revealed a climate at the Capitol where women said overt sexual harassment was rare, but unwanted attention and unnecessary touching were common. 

Johnson said female lobbyists, in particular, were vulnerable because of the unique position lobbyists occupy in the Legislative environment. 

"In the past, I feel like we've fallen into a gray area because we're not employees, so we're not protected in that traditional way," Johnson said. 

Legislative staffers also noted that the House and Senate lack traditional human resources departments.

Adoption of the recommendations will require the approval of House leadership. Some of the changes will likely require a change in law, such as the creation of the independent investigative office. Until that office is formally created, the workgroup is recommending the House contract out that role for the start of the 2019 session which begins in January. 

House leaders were still reviewing the recommendations Friday and were not immediately available to comment. However, Democratic state Rep. Nicole Macri of Seattle, who served on the workgroup, said she was confident leadership would take the recommendations seriously. 

"There is broad, bipartisan support for changing the culture around sexual harassment," Macri said. She added that there's been an "acknowledgment that we do have a dysfunctional culture in the Washington state Legislature and that we need to take deliberate steps to change that and we are committed to doing that." 

Republican state Rep. Gina Mosbrucker of Goldendale, who also served on the workgroup, said the participants "did an exceptional job on a really difficult topic." She said the key to the success of the independent office is that it's viewed as a place that's truly neutral. "[We were] trying to find that neutral place and this was the best solution that we could come up," Mosbrucker said. 

One of the challenges ahead will be aligning the policies and procedures between the House and Senate, which, on most matters, operate independently of each other. 

In July, the Senate's bipartisan Facilities and Operations Committee voted to create a new human resources officer position to investigate complaints of harassment and other workplace misconduct. That position was one of several recommendations that grew out of a separate Senate respectful workplace taskforce that started meeting last January.  The Senate is still in the process of hiring that position. 

Since then, the Senate has convened a separate workgroup to develop a code of conduct for the Senate. That group includes lobbyists and is scheduled to submit its recommendations later this month. Both the House and Senate have expressed an interest in ultimately harmonizing their codes of conduct into one universal policy. 

To that end, the House workgroup is proposing the creation of an advisory board to work with the Senate to align their new codes of conduct and to ensure the House's proposed new independent resource office serves the entire Legislative community. 

Since last year, three Washington state lawmakers have either lost re-election or announced their resignation in the wake of #MeToo-related accusations.