Who Has Courage to Speak out on Harassment?

The Los Angeles City Council just doesn't get it. It was like walking through a time tunnel into a less enlightened era Tuesday.

Five women had just asked the council to investigate charges of sexual harassment leveled by three former aides against mayoral candidate/Councilman Nate Holden. Soon after the women left, they were handcuffed in a hallway and detained by officers for half an hour.

What preceded their arrests outside the lovely marbled council chambers was equally retro.

Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky, demonstrating that the old pols' network is alive and well, asked Council President John Ferraro whether such "personal accusations" did not violate the council's rules.

Ferraro then announced that if the next speakers used any names in their comments about sexual harassment, they would be "cut off."

Is it any wonder this City Council presides over a work environment in which 37% of their 11,600 female employees say they have been sexually harassed on the job, and only 2% have lodged complaints?

Honestly, the Senate Judiciary Committee has nothing on these people.

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From the puzzled looks on their faces, it was obvious that Gloria Barrios, Ann Summa, Laleh Soomekh, Janice Pemberton and Weba Garretson weren't sure why they were being detained.

The officers weren't exactly forthcoming. "You know what you did," said one.

As it turned out, the women were being detained on suspicion of disturbing the peace--not for their comments that morning--but for something that had taken place four days earlier.

On that day, Barrios and her colleagues, all members of the Women's Action Coalition, had waited nearly four hours to be called on during the public comment portion of the council meeting. But Holden had abruptly left the chambers, causing the meeting to be adjourned for lack of a quorum.

Angry at being outmaneuvered by Holden, the women marched down the hall to his office, chanting, "Break the code of silence. Stop the sexual violence." They knocked loudly on his door. Holden, who was inside with several aides, did not come out.

After a few minutes, the women were escorted by officers out of City Hall, but not before they had been videotaped by a Holden aide. The videotape provided the basis for Tuesday's arrests.

On the very day the women were denied the opportunity to speak, the City Council had celebrated Women's History Month.

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Before they were arrested, Councilwoman Ruth Galanter took a moment to speak privately with the activists.

She wanted them to understand, she said, that the council's hands are tied when it comes to investigating one of its own.

"We don't have any power over each other," said Galanter. "It's a very awkward problem for us. Under the City Charter, elected officials are not answerable to anyone but the voters."

Countered Barrios: "But you can censure a council member."

Galanter: "Yes, but we can't censure without investigating, (and) we don't have any way of investigating."

Barrios: "You mean any council member who violates city rules . . . as long as it's not a criminal act, can do so with impunity?"

Galanter shrugged a yes. The women left quietly and then were promptly handcuffed.

Later in the day, Holden, who has strenuously denied all allegations of harassment, said if the women "agree to stop harassing me," he would not press charges.

"We are not harassing him," said Barrios. "And we will not be silenced."

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Quite apart from how they may feel about the heavy-handed way in which a public official responds to public criticism, the residents of Los Angeles have an important stake in the allegations against Holden.

The city is a defendant in the $2.5-million sexual harassment lawsuit filed by former Holden employee Carla Cavalier.

The city will be a defendant, too, if former Holden employee Marlee Beyda files a lawsuit in the next month, as her lawyer intends.

And the city is likely to be named a defendant in at least a third, and possibly a fourth, lawsuit accusing Holden of sexual harassment.

If these cases result in monetary awards, taxpayers will foot at least part of the bill. And if settlements transpire out of court, taxpayers may never know what really happened or how much of their money was spent, since such settlements often hinge on the silence of the parties.

Who among our councilmen and councilwomen has the courage, if not to find a way to conduct an investigation of these charges, then at least to state publicly that the city will not tolerate the harassment of people who do?

When will they get it?

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