Oregon’s top Democratic leaders are asking the state’s law commission whether the constitution could be changed to oust an elected official more swiftly after misconduct.
A letter from House Speaker Tina Kotek and Senate President Peter Courtney to the commission comes on the same day Sen. Jeff Kruse, R-Roseburg, was scheduled to appear before a special conduct committee to consider allegations of unwanted touching and harassment.
An investigation, released earlier this month, revealed Kruse had a longstanding pattern of harassing women. His fellow state Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, first raised the issues but she wasn’t alone; other lawmakers, a lobbyist and interns assigned to Kruse’s office also complained about harassment.
Kruse resigned from the state Senate earlier this month, but only under immense pressure. And he negotiated his own terms: setting his departure date for March 15 and collecting a paycheck until then. He agreed to stay out of the Capitol, but Kotek, a Portland Democrat, called his ability to dictate his own terms "unacceptable" in a tweet.
#unacceptable The fact that Senator Kruse is dictating the terms of his departure is exactly what’s wrong with the power dynamic that exists at the Capitol. #timesup #orpol #orleg https://t.co/e69fMXG3yM— Tina Kotek (@TinaKotek) February 9, 2018
As a result of Kruse's resignation, the special conduct committee canceled its hearing.
In a letter released Thursday afternoon, Kotek and Courtney, D-Salem, asked the Oregon Law Commission to review state policies and laws to ensure the Capitol is a harassment-free workplace.
“Unfortunately, the Oregon Legislature is not free from workplace harassment,” the letter reads. “The power differential between elected officials and those who work in the Capitol creates a challenging environment.”
The two Democratic leaders have asked the commission to finish its work in time to introduce legislation and new policies during the 2019 legislative session.
“Because it involved an elected member, we don’t have a lot of tools to discipline a member other than a vote of the chamber and is that OK?” Kotek said Thursday.
She said direction from the law commission would give legislators "possible options" going forward.
“What we would need to do to change the law or the constitution to have more opportunities to discipline someone if it’s found they have done something wrong,” she explained.
Kotek said lawmakers also have plans to update their training policies and possibly create an anonymous tip line where people can call with concerns.
If the state’s law commission were to recommend a constitutional change, it would have to be approved by the legislative body and ultimately voters.
The letter also asks the commission to make recommendations for the rules and laws governing harassment between lobbyists, the public and elected officials.
It requests the commission consider ways for people to file complaints free from retaliation and asks that all stakeholders — lawmakers, professionals, staff, lobbyists and the public — are part of their process in creating recommendations.
Kotek pointed out that in other states, elected representatives didn’t wait as long after accusations surfaced to resign. Because Kruse denied the allegations and waited until after the investigation was complete, it became clear the process in Oregon was “clunky,” Kotek said.
“It’s not clear how you can resolve (the issues),” she said. “And what the investigation showed is that there were some very serious issues.”
What was evident, she continued, is the Legislature needs some outside help.