Politics

After two years, Oregon lawmakers could hire official to tackle harassment complaints

By Dirk VanderHart (OPB)
April 17, 2023 8:35 p.m.

The legislative equity officer was a cornerstone of a new approach to fighting workplace misconduct in the Capitol. But it’s been a tough role to fill.

State senate in session at the Oregon Capitol in Salem, March 20, 2023.

State senate in session at the Oregon Capitol in Salem, March 20, 2023.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

Oregon lawmakers are on the verge of hiring an official to address complaints of workplace harassment and retaliation in the state Capitol, nearly two years after the fraught and high-pressure position went vacant.

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A legislative committee on Monday met to take up hiring a legislative equity officer, or LEO. At the brief hearing, members of the Joint Conduct Committee said they’d picked a finalist to fill the position after a three-month recruitment process led by an out-of-state headhunting firm. The finalist’s name wasn’t released, but lawmakers could hold a hearing on the hire as early as this week.

“We’ve been going through a very detailed and comprehensive process to evaluate candidates, and to come up with an appropriate choice,” said state Rep. Kevin Mannix, a Salem Republican and one of the committee’s co-chairs. “The four [Conduct Committee] co-chairs have a preferred candidate ready to proceed.”

If the committee follows through, the choice it makes is likely only the first step in addressing a workplace complaint process that is the subject of broad distrust within the Capitol, and which the state’s paid consultants found is replete with pitfalls.

The LEO is supposed to field complaints, launch investigations and assist victims of harassment, retaliation or hostile behavior within the Capitol. The job was a key addition when lawmakers — grappling with the fallout from a sexual harassment scandal in 2018 — overhauled the Capitol’s rules for addressing workplace misconduct. The LEO role is theoretically more independent from the building’s partisan power structure than the legislative attorneys and human resources officials who used to handle complaints.

The kinds of complaints the LEO is assigned to address have cropped up again and again in recent years, highlighting the need for a capable official to help complainants and the accused navigate the state’s complex process.

But the job has proven hard to fill. The first person to take the LEO role in a temporary capacity, Jackie Sandmeyer, opted not to seek the job permanently and has since been accused of lax record-keeping and ignoring complaints.

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The next legislative equity officer, Nate Monson, was forced out after two months after legislative officials learned of discrepancies on his resume. Monson has since sued state officials, claiming he was pushed out for raising alarms about poor record keeping and other worrisome behavior by his predecessor, Sandmeyer.

Since Monson’s resignation in June 2021, the position has been vacant. The Legislature currently contracts with two Portland law firms that provide attorneys to field complaints and conduct investigations. But that service is costly and has led to at least one instance of a complaint — involving Gov. Tina Kotek — dragging out for more than 600 days, well past the 84 days timetable set under rules.

Legislative officials first sought to hire an LEO themselves but wound up giving in when repeated job postings failed to yield a winning candidate. Last year, the state took a new approach, agreeing to pay headhunting firm Spelman Johnson up to $100,000 to compile a list of qualified candidates.

That process began in earnest in January, with chairs of the Joint Conduct Committee, which oversees the LEO, taking the lead in interviews. According to Mannix, lawmakers interviewed three finalists “who had an opportunity to meet with a substantial number of folks in this legislative process.”

None of the Conduct Committee chairs responded to inquiries Monday about who their finalist of choice is. Lawmakers declined to provide a list of candidates submitted by Spelman Johnson, citing an exemption in public records law that members of the Legislature can tap at will during a legislative session.

Regardless of who winds up getting the job, hiring an LEO is likely just a first step toward repairing the Legislature’s approach to harassment complaints. In a frank memo submitted to lawmakers last year, obtained via a public records request, Spelman Johnson laid out a litany of problems with the process.

Among red flags the firm raised, based on interviews with a range of Capitol figures:

  • The Capitol as a workplace has been described as “toxic,” and lawmakers need better training in order to be adequate managers. “This will be important as the legislators themselves struggle with self-regulation and accountability.”
  • Workplace training about what constitutes harassment, retaliation or creating a hostile work environment needs to be more extensive, clear and easily available. The Legislature’s rules against such conduct also need to be “clarified and amended”
  • The current complaint process “is seen as very politicized and there is limited confidence that the Joint Conduct Committee and LEO… can get to a place that is apolitical.” The handling of complaints, the memo said, “was described as ‘feckless’ and the Legislature’s commitment to resolving cases was questioned.”
  • The salary range envisioned for the LEO, topping out at $146,544, is “not adequate” given the complexity of the job. “The LEO position, as the head of a legislative agency, should be in relative alignment with the other agency heads.” The salary range listed in a job posting for the position touts a starting salary of up to $166,128.

How lawmakers plan to address those concerns — along with others raised in the memo — was not clear Monday. But there did appear to be an understanding that the Conduct Committee should move quickly on a hire.

“We will do it this week,” said state Sen. Floyd Prozanski, a Eugene Democrat and committee co-chair. “We need to ASAP this so we can move to the next stage.”

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