A Washington state Senate task force is recommending hiring a human-resources officer to receive and investigate complaints of harassment or inappropriate behavior for that legislative chamber. The proposal comes in the wake of the #MeToo movement.
OLYMPIA — A Washington state Senate committee Monday approved a plan to hire a human-resources officer to receive and investigate complaints of harassment or inappropriate behavior for that legislative chamber.
The plan, which also includes updates to the Senate’s respectful workplace policy, comes as lawmakers continue attempts to strengthen anti-harassment rules and protocols in the wake of the #MeToo movement.
After Monday’s vote, which put the new policy in place, Senate Majority Leader Sharon Nelson described it as “a very significant piece of work.”
“It just reinforces our commitment to dealing with any sexual harassment,” said Nelson, a Democrat from Maury Island. She added that there are currently no active harassment complaints in the Senate.
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The Legislature has for years operated with an outdated and politically-tinged system for addressing complaints. The House and Senate have separate policies, but both have used a largely informal process in which harassment complaints might be reviewed by partisan staff members.
In addition, officials don’t always keep records of complaints, raising the question of whether the Legislature could adequately investigate or sanction a serial harasser.
Under the new policy, a human-resources officer would have authority to review complaints and conduct investigations, though the Senate could still contract for an independent review if allegations warranted it, said Brad Hendrickson, secretary of the Senate.
The officer’s investigation report with recommendations would be forwarded to Hendrickson, who could issue a sanction, or forward recommendations such as censure or expulsion on to the full Senate.
Any respondent in an investigation who disagreed with Hendrickson’s actions could appeal that decision to a Senate committee, he said.
The human-resources officer would be hired or terminated by a Senate committee structured so that both political parties would have to approve the change, according to a copy of the recommendations.
Staffers or others who want to come forward with complaints but feel more comfortable speaking instead with a supervisor or other legislative officials can still go to those people.
Among other things, the recommendations by the Senate Respectful Workplace Taskforce, which was composed of legislative staffers, clarified the chamber’s current policies. They also make public the release of investigations of senators where allegations have been deemed justified.
Investigations involving staff members, however, would remain confidential.
The Senate Facilities and Operations Committee approved the recommendations Monday afternoon by a unanimous vote.
Since the #MeToo movement emerged nationally last year, numerous women have come forward with stories of harassment at the Legislature.
Some women went public with incidents by lawmakers that happened years ago, while others lodged allegations against two sitting state lawmakers — Rep. Matt Manweller, R-Ellensburg, and Rep. David Sawyer, D-Tacoma.
In light of those issues, the idea of creating an independent office to handle complaints has swirled around Olympia since last November.
But progress on that front has inched forward, even as lawmakers and legislative officials moved quickly to bolster anti-harassment training for staff and lawmakers.
The Senate and House are each undertaking different internal work groups as they explore changes to their workplace policies. The House isn’t expected to come up with recommendations until later this year.
It remains to be seen whether the Senate and House will ultimately team up to support a consolidated human-resources office for the entire Legislature.
But Sen. Manka Dhingra, D-Redmond, and Rep. Nicole Macri, D-Seattle and a member of the House work group, said they believe the House is thinking along roughly the same lines as the Senate.
“I envision the end part to be extremely similar,” said Dhingra, who served as a liaison to the Senate task force. “And if they have better ideas, great.”