Efforts are aimed at adding accountability, increasing openness and protecting those who come forward with accusations
DENVER: Lawmakers in Colorado and New Mexico began revising their sexual misconduct policies Friday, joining other legislatures that are facing questions about whether they are doing enough to deter predatory behaviour and protect victims.
In Colorado, lawmakers voted unanimously to hire a consultant to review the Legislature’s sexual harassment policy. It came as New Mexico lawmakers published a first draft of proposed revisions to sexual harassment rules and disciplinary procedures.
Similar moves are underway in California. The efforts are aimed at adding accountability, increasing openness and protecting those who come forward with accusations at a time when lawmakers across the country have been forced to resign over sexual misconduct claims.
Colorado, which has the highest proportion of female legislators in the country at 42 per cent, has seen several lawmakers accused of sexual misconduct in recent weeks. House Speaker Crisanta Duran, a Democrat, said Friday that besides revamping how complaints are handled, the culture of the Capitol also needs to change.
Her Republican counterpart in the Senate agreed.
“If there is room for improvement or deficiencies in our policies, we’re going to make it right,” state Sen. President Kevin Grantham said.
In addition to the independent consultant, legislative leaders voted to hire the Legislature’s first human resources employee. They also agreed to step up workplace harassment training and are considering creating an independent body to investigate complaints, instead of having legislative leaders handle them.
New Mexico’s Democratic-led Legislature is already rewriting its policy against sexual harassment in response to reports that widespread misconduct has gone unchecked.
The proposal released Friday provides new, detailed descriptions of what constitutes harassment — including “any language, jokes of a sexual nature, kidding, teasing and threats that are sexual in nature.”
It would leave investigations of lawmakers to a legislative panel, despite calls for harassment investigations to be carried out by an independent authority.
Under the suggested rules, sexual harassment complaints against lawmakers would be reviewed by the House speaker or Senate president and possibly referred to an ethics subcommittee. Sanctions that include reprimand, censure or expulsion would be determined by the entire House or Senate.
New Mexico lobbyist Vanessa Alarid applauded provisions that would exempt initial complaints from public records requests to prevent the process from becoming a forum for politically motivated attacks. She has accused a former lawmaker of pressuring her to have sex in exchange for support of one of her measures.
However, she said sexual harassment accusations must be vetted outside the Legislature to truly safeguard against retaliation.
“It must be an outside unit that investigates complaints,” Alarid said.
In California, the state Senate has hired two law firms to handle all sexual harassment allegations for the next two years and partnered with a local domestic violence and rape crisis centre to provide counselling to victims.
Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon, a Democrat, also has promised to release the names of lawmakers who have been the subject of past harassment investigations within the next month, something the Legislature has so far failed to do.
The California Assembly also has launched public hearings to improve its sexual harassment policies and plans to establish a hotline for victims.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 37 states reported having sexual harassment policies in an October 2016 survey.