Topic: Open Government (235)

See no evil – speak no evil – hear no evil

Regarding House Concurrent Resolution 4413, now in progress in our state legislature.

I’ve been waiting seventeen years for the Washington state Legislature to address incidents of sexual harassment and workplace violence that take place in its revered halls and offices.

In 2008, as a former legislative staffer, I tried to blow the whistle. Within weeks, I found myself buried under a pile of legal letters from the House of Representatives counsel denying me access to my employment files or any of the evidence and/or handwritten documentation I provided in regard to the sexual harassment and workplace violence I experienced at the hands of one of the legislators I worked for in the late 1990s.

For decades, the House and Senate have handled sexual harassment and workplace violence complaints through what is referred to as an informal complaint process. This meant the House or Senate leadership decided if a legislator would be disciplined for sexual harassment or workplace violence. If a legislative staffer was assaulted, leadership, not law enforcement or the courts, determined what discipline, if any, would be taken against the offending legislator.

As a survivor of harassment and workplace violence, I have been hoping to see proposed legislation that would put an end to the secrecy and lack of accountability surrounding sexual harassment and workplace violence in the state Legislature. The sponsors of the resolution acknowledge a unique power dynamic between elected officials and members of the legislative staff/community. It appeared House Concurrent Resolution 4413 was going to address the problem. The House and Senate plan is to form the Unified Table on Sexual Harassment Task Force.

This newly formed task force will be comprised of 14 members: Two members will be from each of the two largest caucuses of the Senate, appointed by caucus leaders; two members will be from each of the two largest caucuses of the House appointed by the speaker; four lobbyists, appointed by legislative members of the task force; the secretary of the Senate or the secretary’s designee; and the chief clerk of the House of Representatives or the chief clerk’s designee.

Did you notice the glaring omission in the Task Force roster? There is not one representative from legislative staff on the task force. They have excluded members of the community who are most often abused from the task force that is charged with the responsibility of finding a solution to the problem.

When one looks at the resolution’s objectives, it becomes clear the main focus of the task force is to protect legislators, not the harassed and abused: The bill retains the offices of Senate and House counsel to continue as a resource to any legislator with issues related to harassment. The bill also directs the task force to make recommendations about necessary cultural changes that may lead to the prevention of sexual harassment and the protection of members of the legislative community, including adoption of a code of conduct.

But members of the legislature don’t need additional training on what constitutes sexual harassment, a hostile work environment or workplace violence. Both chambers have long-standing policies prohibiting sexual harassment and workplace violence. Yet harassment and workplace violence continues to happen – because there are no consequences for the abuser.

All other local and state government employees’ discipline records are available for review by members of the public. The only entity that claims an exemption from disclosure is the Washington Legislature. That exemption allows the violation of legislative employees’ civil rights and obstructs justice.

After I was assaulted by one of the legislators I worked for, I called the Olympia police to file an assault report. They told me they did not have jurisdiction on the Capitol campus and referred me to the state patrol. The state patrol officer called the Chief of Staff and told me that he wouldn’t take a report unless she instructed him to do so. Assault charges were never filed; the matter was handled internally by leadership.

Regrettably, it appears that elected officials will still be able to use their power to assault, harass, threaten and destroy the careers of otherwise talented, highly trained, professional legislative staff – just because they have the power and desire to do so.

Also, the resolution has a sunset clause. The task force expires on December 31, 2018.

About Elisabeth Britt

Posting Citizen Journalist • Member since Mar 23, 2009

Comments by Readers

Michael Riordan

Jan 22, 2018

Looks like the Legislature has once again put the foxes in charge of the hen house.

Four lobbyists on the panel and no staff members — the ones most likely to be abused?

Aw c’mon, this measure just plain stinks! It continues the Legislature’s coverup of sexual-harassment cases that has been going on since 1995, when it exempted itself from the 1972 Public Records Act.

The stench can only be called Olympian. 

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Elisabeth Britt

Jan 22, 2018

Last Friday,  Joseph O’Sullivan of the Seattle Times wrote an article announcing that Thurston County Superior Court Judge Chris Lanese had just ruled that the individual records of elected state lawmakers, including complaints made against those elected officials,  are not exempt from the Public Disclosure Act.  You can read the full article here

The lawsuit filed by the AP and nine other news organizations - seeks to put an end to the state legislature’s practice of withholding records from the public that have been readily available to members of the public for decades through other local and state government offices. And, yes. Those records include disciplinary actions taken against public employees. 

The foundation of democracy is transparency. Public access to lawmaker records will help voters make informed decisions about the individuals who represent them. And, it will shine some sunshine on inappropriate behavior. Especially repeat offenders.

I’ll monitor the work of the task force and write updates, when appropriate.  

After all, no one should be above the law, not even a lawmaker.  

 

 

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