California Legislature may create new harassment unit
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — The California Legislature may create a new investigative unit to focus solely on harassment and discrimination complaints and hire an outside panel of experts to recommend discipline for perpetrators.
Those are key pieces of a sweeping policy overhaul proposed Friday by two lawmakers tasked with revamping the Capitol’s sexual misconduct policies after several lawmakers and high-level staffers were accused of groping and other inappropriate conduct. The policy could be edited before an approval vote June 25, but Assembly and Senate leaders offered their support.
Critical details are still lacking, such as how much the new unit would cost, how many employees it would include and how members of the independent review panel would be selected. But Assemblywoman Laura Friedman and Sen. Holly Mitchell, who drove the new proposal, called it a major step toward improving the Capitol culture to better protect employees from harassment and discrimination.
“This is a sea change,” Friedman said, a Glendale Democrat. “I think (it’s) very, very different from what other government entities have done.”
In the wake of the #MeToo movement, statehouses across the country are grappling with how best to handle inappropriate workplace culture and conduct by lawmakers who can only be removed by voters.
The newly proposed “Workplace Conduct Unit” would operate within the Legislative Counsel’s office. Friedman said it would operate independently, but a policy outline shared with reports said the Legislative Counsel would oversee the unit. Investigators in the unit would have specialized training in sexual harassment and discrimination. Currently complaints are first handled by each chamber’s rules committee before an investigation conducted internally or by outside investigators.
The Legislature would also appoint five outside experts to a panel tasked with reviewing the facts discovered by investigators, determining whether the accusations have merit and recommending how the Legislature should respond. Discipline options could range from requiring an employee or lawmaker to undergo more bias training to termination.
But the Assembly and Senate would still have the ultimate say on how to discipline employees.
Critics of the Legislature’s existing policy have said it’s unfair because it is not truly independent, and outside observers questioned Friday whether the new proposal eliminates that conflict.
“I think it’s good government to have an outside panel who can assess the accusations,” said Kim Nalder, director of the Project for an Informed Electorate at the California State University-Sacramento. “The downside though is the ultimate decision still rests with the Legislature.”
Friedman and Mitchell said it hasn’t been determined whether now-active investigations would be re-routed through the new process if it is adopted. The Assembly just resumed an investigation into a groping allegation against Democratic Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia after determining last month it couldn’t be substantiated.
The proposed policy also aims to spur a shift in how people in the Capitol community speak and act toward each other. It encourages people to report minor incidents such as insensitive comments all the way through more aggressive acts of misconduct and would revamp the Legislature’s training process to be more hands on and teach people how to be bystanders.
“You can have the best policy on paper but until the culture of your organization really embodies that culture you want to have, those policies can only go so far,” Friedman said.
The new investigative unit and panel system would handle any type of harassment or discrimination complaints, including those based on race or sexual orientation. Other complaints would go through the normal human resources process.