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Progress report on efforts to address harassment in the state Legislature

Two weeks ago, I spoke at a conference of women leaders in government on the topic of sexual harassment and the work we’ve done within the California Legislature to change a system that has too often failed to provide the accountability and justice that we all deserve. Afterwards, I was amazed by how many attendees came up to me and relayed how they’ve struggled to address harassment in their state houses. For some, even the smallest change was blocked. I’m proud that California can provide them with a road map to reform.

Getting to this point hasn’t been easy. It all began last fall, as the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke and the #MeToo movement gained momentum, a letter circulated around the Capitol community calling for an end to the permissive attitude towards sexual harassment in Sacramento. I signed the letter, along with over 140 other women, hoping to send a message but not expecting much to change. After all, we’ve endured harassment in the workplace for decades.

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Days later, I was tasked with taking the lead on the Assembly’s response to harassment and a complete overhaul of our policies. What started as the Assembly Rules Subcommittee on Harassment, Discrimination and Retaliation Prevention and Response became in January a bicameral approach through the Joint Rules Subcommittee on Sexual Harassment Prevention and Response, and I’ve been privileged to serve as the chair of both.

Over the past six months, we’ve held nine hearings and heard more than 13 hours of testimony from experts, advocates and victims. We’ve read reports, jumped into the deep end on the research, and tried to understand the scope of harassment in the workplace, all to find the best approach to combat harassment in the Legislature and build a positive culture that promotes respect, civility and diversity.

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Earlier this week, the Joint Rules Committee adopted our recommendations that dramatically transform the way the Legislature responds to harassment. Instead of separate policies in each house, with different resources and requirements for victims and limited transparency for all involved, our proposal establishes an independent unit for the assessment and investigation of harassment claims. It’s a system that will cover both the Assembly and the Senate, with a panel of subject-matter experts appointed by the chief justice of the California Supreme Court and bipartisan leadership in both houses, to make the factual determinations and recommendations for response. The process will operate the same way for elected members of the Legislature as for our staff, with the goals of fairness and impartiality.

We’ve paired the development of the independent unit with robust transparency requirements, better training for Assembly members and staff, and a policy on workplace conduct that lays out a clear policy that measures actions based on whether or not they promote respect, civility and diversity.

From the beginning, I’ve felt that we had an opportunity to set an example for our local governments and legislatures across the nation. We were ready to confront the problems that have plagued our Capitol for decades, honestly and transparently. It’s surprisingly rare for the California Legislature to come together on a bicameral solution. We took bold and sometimes frustrating steps toward a more accountable system that required leadership to give up some power. We created a system that made it clear that no one, including elected officials, would be allowed to harass, retaliate or discriminate against their coworkers. In doing so, we’re hoping to rebuild trust with Californians and, most importantly, with the thousands of staff, advocates and members of the public that work in and around the Capitol and our district offices every day.

Change isn’t going to happen overnight. However, change is coming. What we’re undertaking is a marked departure from the business as usual for both the Assembly and Senate. It’s going to take time to launch and it will certainly take time to build trust in a new system, but I'm committed to seeing it through.

I hope you’ll follow our progress and share your thoughts.

LAURA FRIEDMAN (D-Glendale) represents La Cañada Flintridge, La Crescenta, Montrose, Glendale, Burbank and neighboring communities in the 43rd Assembly District.

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