SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — There’s no quick fix to the California Legislature’s problems with sexual harassment, lawmakers leading a panel on the issue said Wednesday.
“This change in culture will not come overnight,” Democratic Assemblywoman Eloise Gomez Reyes of San Bernardino said.
The bipartisan panel is tasked with reforming the Legislature’s policies for handling sexual harassment allegations, including how to hold members accountable and protect victims. The meeting was the first time both chambers joined together to address allegations of rampant harassment that forced two lawmakers to resign and Democratic Sen. Tony Mendoza to take a paid leave of absence. Critics of the current system say it’s designed to shield lawmakers rather than protect victims.
The committee took testimony from experts on corporate culture and human resources as well as the University of California’s Title IX coordinator. Democratic Assemblywoman Laura Friedman of Glendale said she wants the committee to take a “deep dive” and be careful about rewriting legislative policies with the hope of making lasting change.
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One committee member said he’s hoping for more rapid change.
“It’s like the Capitol has a big black eye right now and I’d like to see things move maybe a little quicker,” Republican Sen. John Moorlach of Costa Mesa.
Indeed, the Legislature is grappling with more immediate decisions as the committee evaluates a cultural shift. Mendoza was interviewed Tuesday by outside lawyers looking into claims he behaved inappropriately toward young women who worked for him, including by offering one alcohol when she was underage.
He agreed to a leave of absence in early January, promising to return at the end of the month, which would be next week. But Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon is now threatening to suspend him if he comes back before the investigation is done.
Meanwhile, de Leon and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon promised Jan. 5 to release documents related to sexual harassment claims against lawmakers or high-level employees if discipline was imposed or the allegations were substantiated. They have not provided a date for releasing the documents. At a Dec. 14 press conference, de Leon said the Senate would respond more fully to records requests within 30 days.
Lawmakers on the committee acknowledged the Legislature’s problems are the product of a culture that for years has allowed harassment to go unchecked and gender dynamics unaddressed. Democratic Sen. Holly Mitchell of Los Angeles said both issues need to be addressed moving forward.
“We need to work collaboratively create a culture in which women are valued, women are perceived as equal and that employees have mutual respect for each other,” she said.
Janet Denhardt of the Sol Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California told lawmakers they need a large-scale buy-in from members of the Capitol community to make lasting change.
“It isn’t enough to have one or 10 people saying we are going to change the culture,” she said.