Commentary: It’s about time

In June, state Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon set up a subcommittee of the Assembly Rules Committee to review our harassment policy and assigned me as chair. At the time, I didn’t think much of it. In my mind, the subcommittee was going to be a quiet, routine, review of our current policies and procedures resulting in minor revisions here and there.

But by Nov. 28, our first hearing of the Assembly Rules Subcommittee on Harassment, Discrimination and Retaliation Prevention and Response was anything but quiet and was far from routine.

Led by a series of heroic women and some men, the wave that has spread across our country quickly struck home within the state Legislature when dozens stepped forward with their allegations against prominent and powerful legislators and revealed our own dark culture of harassment and abuse in Sacramento.

That original perception that this would have been a “routine review” is indicative of a view many had held: that hiding-in-plain-sight abuses of power and sexual harassment were a distasteful but unalterable element of the status quo. This is not to say that many of us, many of whom are or have been victims of harassment, didn’t want anything to change — it’s just that we didn’t think we could change it.

In the Capitol, in industries and in offices, we need to relegate that mindset to the past. Thanks to the strength and solidarity of so many women across the country, we now know we can in fact change that culture, and I am certain we will.

At our first subcommittee hearing, hope and determination was on display. Because of the bravery of our speakers, who risked their careers, privacy and personal lives to testify before the panel, we were able to take a tremendous first step toward our goal.

Our first hearing was a starting point. We took a hard look at the Assembly’s current policies and procedures for handling sexual harassment, and we investigated how those policies fall short and in some cases fail. It honestly didn’t take much to find out where our system is breaking down.

In many ways, the problems we are confronting within the Assembly are no different than those found in the private sector. While our “zero tolerance” policy goes beyond existing laws governing sexual harassment, victims are still reluctant to come forward. The reporting process is often seen as putting the institution, and the elected members of the Assembly, first. The fear of retaliation can be palpable for a victim in any industry. They’re risking their careers to report abuse, and for a young staffer trying to gain a toehold in a competitive workplace, that can be an incredibly difficult call to make.

We have protocols to follow during an investigation. And whenever sexual harassment is alleged, the Assembly brings in an outside investigator. We have an internal system that logs complaints, but we’re lacking a comprehensive system for tracking complaints and spotting trends. That means that when we want to take a look at the history of complaints, investigations and their outcomes, it’s tough to get a clear picture, and the debate during the hearing made that painfully clear.

If a complaint and subsequent investigation involved a member of the Assembly, the system takes on an extra level of complexity. Like any other human resources department, the Assembly Rules Committee has the ability to discipline staff that violate our policies. That discipline can range from a requirement for additional training to prevent the problem from happening again to termination. However, Assembly members aren’t employees of the Assembly, and they can’t be fired by the Assembly Rules Committee. They’re elected by voters, and the protocols outlined for their discipline are governed in large part by the California Constitution. For a victim lodging a complaint against an Assembly member, getting justice or relief can feel like an uphill battle. There’s a referral to an outside investigator, and a report back to the Assembly Rules Committee Chair, but any suspension or termination requires a two-thirds vote of the entire Assembly.

It is not my intention to say that there is an insidious, system-wide, malevolence in the way that harassment complaints are currently administered. There are a number of examples where the system has worked and has protected victims. But that’s just not enough. Through the hearing and our work to examine and strengthen our system, we have uncovered one truth that is the cornerstone of our work: the fact that sexual misconduct transpired without the victims having a mechanism to report the abuse without fear of retaliation, and with confidence of the perpetrators being held accountable. This is exemplary of a critical failure of the dominant culture which puts anyone who works in the Capitol community at risk.

It is within this context that we will be taking our next steps. While our first hearing focused on the problem, our second hearing will focus on solutions. We’ll hear from experts on best practices in training, prevention policies, reporting practices, accountability and investigations. Everything is on the table. We will publicly look at every single option so we can make an informed decision about what will work best.

We’re already taking actions based on recommendations from the first hearing. We’ve developed a list of resources for staff and others that work in and around the Capitol, complete with options for counseling and legal services. In coming days, we’ll have a confidential hotline up and running for anyone to call to get connected to the support services they need. Through the hotline, a victim can learn more about their rights, options for filing a report, and counseling and legal aid in their community.

Change is difficult, but it’s necessary. Some of our evolution will happen quickly, some of it slowly. Through it all, I am committed to a public and transparent discussion so that the lasting changes we put in place truly work. We will come out of this as a very different body. Sacramento will never be the same, and that’s a good thing. No longer will anyone have to accept harassment of any kind because they fear the consequences of standing up for their rights and their dignity. We have an opportunity to lead by example, so that other statehouses, cities and industries can follow in our footsteps and end the pervasive harassment and inequality that plague countless workplaces.

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