The office will support city employees dealing with workplace misconduct and will operate independently from the Department of Human Resources and the Office for Civil Rights.
The Seattle City Council approved the creation Monday of an Office of Employee Ombud to support city employees dealing with workplace misconduct, discrimination and harassment and to watchdog City Hall’s handling of workplace discrimination and harassment.
Mayor Jenny Durkan sent the legislation to the council in October after an interdepartmental team spent months reviewing Seattle’s workplace-harassment and discrimination policies. The team made more than 30 recommendations, including the establishment of an Office of Employee Ombud.
“This is a historic and meaningful step,” Durkan said in a statement.
The new office, whose director will be appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the council, will operate independently from the Department of Human Resources and the Office for Civil Rights, which investigate allegations of city workplace harassment, discrimination and misconduct.
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The interdepartmental team’s 21 members included representatives from the council, various departments, unions and the Seattle Silence Breakers — a group of city employees and activists that began meeting last year, as the Me Too movement picked up momentum, to speak out about workplace harassment and discrimination.
“Today marks a critical day for the Me Too movement,” Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda said.
In Seattle’s budget for 2019, approved by the council last month, the mayor allocated the Office of the Employee Ombud about $564,000 for operating expenses and three staffers — the director and two strategic advisers.
The office will assist city employees in understanding and assessing their options and resources for addressing what may be inappropriate workplace conduct, harassment and discrimination, according to the legislation. It also will “facilitate discussions” to resolve disputes that may not require investigations.
Lastly, the office will provide the mayor and council with “analyses and recommendations on training, policy and rule changes” related to city-workplace discrimination and harassment.
The legislation says the office “shall be free of undue influence by elected officials,” directing the office to review and report back to the mayor and council next year how best to maintain its independence.
Councilmember Kshama Sawant voted for the legislation but said she doubts the office will be protected from political influence.
The mayor will be allowed to remove the director “upon filing a statement of reasons” with the council, the legislation says.
Durkan’s interdepartmental team also recommended a new unit within the Department of Human Resources to investigate misconduct complaints in all departments under the mayor’s authority. Until now, human-resources units within departments like Seattle City Light have carried out their own investigations.
Durkan signed an executive order in September that said the new investigative unit would be created in 2019.
A recent survey on harassment and discrimination at the city uncovered alarming themes, including mistrust of management, fear of retaliation, lack of transparency, bias in hiring and ageism.