Last month, Sen. Sara Gelser arrived at her Corvallis home to find an anonymous piece of mail.
In large all-capital letters, Gelser said, someone called her a “liberal, Democrat hypocrite,” and scribbled something along the lines of “Kruse wasn’t about the harassment was it? It was about the votes.”
Gelser came forward with allegations of sexual misconduct against then Sen. Jeff Kruse, a Republican from Roseburg, while the nation was in the midst of national reckoning after Harvey Weinstein was accused of sexually harassing scores of women.
Gelser, a Democrat, said although the mail was sent anonymously, she’s confident it was from a fellow senator.
More than a year after the allegations surfaced, Gelser said, the culture in Salem hasn’t improved.
She has dealt with retaliation. And the Legislature is currently embroiled in an unprecedented court battle with the state’s Bureau of Labor and Industries, which the senator said, has been demoralizing.
Gelser said she remains concerned for interns and legislative staffers who work in the Capitol building. With the ongoing battle with BOLI, she said, it’s evident that people complaining through that route are being “shut down.”
“If I had to go back in time, I probably wouldn’t [file a formal complaint] again,” Gelser told a panel charged with creating recommendations for the rules governing harassment in the Oregon Legislature on Friday afternoon. “And that’s a real problem.”
Across the country, state capitals have struggled with how to shift the culture in places where the power structures often make that difficult.
For months, a group of lawyers, former lawmakers, judges, lobbyists and other stakeholders have been working to address culture change at the Salem statehouse. The Oregon State Capitol Workplace Harassment work group is nearing the end of its task and is expected to submit final recommendations to the state Legislature in the next couple of weeks.
Former Republican lawmaker Vicki Berger told Gelser that she feels the group’s key charge is to shift attitudes.
“We have to change the culture,” Berger said.
The Legislature asked the work group for its recommendations ahead of the 2019 legislative session.
Here are some of their draft proposals:
- Creation of an equity office: The Legislature would have to approve and fund this office. The task force suggests that two people should be hired to work in the office and that it be as independent as possible, including its own physical space. One person would be charged with investigations and making interim safety recommendations. The second staff person would oversee training, conduct regular climate surveys, and provide a confidential process counseling to any individuals that explain how to make complaints. The group discussed outsourcing the investigations. The goal is to make the office as independent and as nonpartisan as possible. The equity office would be charged with overseeing all reports of harassment, not only reports of sexual misconduct. This group would also recruit an equity leadership team made up of leaders from the Capitol community who work to promote an inclusive environment.
- The group is debating whether there should be a time limit when it comes to reporting harassment. The current legislative rule has a one-year time limitation. The group has not reached consensus, with some people urging the legislative rules be silent on the time limit while others have suggested a four-year limitation.
- Workplace harassment policy should include both confidential and non-confidential reporting processes. But because federal courts are not required to follow state privilege laws, there is always a risk that a person’s confidentiality could be violated.
- If a supervisor or other legally responsible person becomes aware of harassment, they are responsible or “on notice” to take reasonable measures to stop the behavior. They must report the behavior.
- In order to reduce complaints being “weaponized” in a partisan arena, complaints should be considered under the penalty of perjury.
- Updated legislative policies should address and explain protections against retaliation. The policy should include contact information for outside help, such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Bureau of Labor and Industries.
- All investigations should be completed as soon as possible, but a final investigation report should be completed within 84 days. There was some concern in the group that this could be too long of a timeline. The final report would be given to a conduct committee, which would be charged with making a final determination of facts.
- For any lawmakers who violate the policies, the conduct committee could be empowered to render fines. Only a vote of the chamber can likely expel or censure a lawmaker.
- There should be a centralized place where interns working in the building can be tracked through human resources. The interns should be made aware of who they can report to if they are experiencing harassment.
- The Oregon Government Ethics Commission should track registered lobbyists who don’t attend harassment training.
The group is scheduled to meet again Dec. 17.