#metoo movement in slo-mo at Capitol

All over the world, the #metoo movement led by women has put a necessary spotlight on sexual harassment in the workplace and harassment in political corridors.

The willingness of women in high-profile occupations to step forward and confront accusers has opened the door to possible culture change.

But action to create new cultural norms in political arenas slower going and deliberate. In the case of the Washington Legislature, the process can look murky, too.

After failing to act during their 60-day session that ended in mid-March, the Washington House and Senate are still in what seems like an early stage of addressing the issue.

So far, the debate has been internal with lists of participants not released publicly. And despite hopes by some activists that we’d see a new agency or office set up to handle complaints and listen to concerns, there is little sign that can happen soon.

The House and Senate are instead working separately and under radar.

The Senate has a task force of legislators and staff members and it is getting help from an in-house human resources specialist.

The House has a working group of staff, legislators and lobbyists who are being aided by a facilitator. Oriana Noel Lewis from the Dispute Resolution Center of Thurston County is leading the House workgroup that has more than two-dozen participants.

Lewis said the conversations are frank and in some cases include personal stories. That is one reason identities of participants have not been released publicly.

The upshot is that we may see recommendations going to legislative leaders to tighten up training requirements for staff and members. And we may see new language for the Legislature’s ethics manuals that spells out even more clearly what is allowed and what isn’t, according to Lewis and House Chief Clerk Bernard Dean.

Still unclear is whether one or both of the chambers will seek to create a new office that can handle allegations of improper conduct.

One idea that has been suggested is an independent office or board that can investigate allegations of harassment.

Another idea is to hand the job to a body like the state public Disclosure Commission, which regulates lobbyists and investigates alleged violations of state campaign finance laws.

Yet another option is to redefine the Ethics in Public Service Act, which the Legislature passed in 1994 after a scandal erupted over legislators' rampant, illegal use of taxpayer resources for campaigning.

The ethics act created the executive and legislative ethics boards – one to police executive branch employees and one to enforce rules against legislative branch employees, including lawmakers. These boards have power to investigate complaints against public employees.

The Legislative Ethics Board looks like a good place to enshrine the power to investigate sexual harassment complaints at the Capitol.

But some individuals who feel pressures at work that carry sexual overtones may want more advice or counsel than a place to file a formal complaint. And a legislative board does not address harassment in other venues.

Then there is the question of how to include lobbyists in the mix of regulation, which is how the PDC got mentioned without volunteering.

Other states have moved deliberately in the wake of the #metoo movement.

California’s Legislature is considering creation of an independent body made up of retired judges and others expert in the harassment area of law. That body could take complaints, investigate and – if claims were substantiated – recommend sanctions against a lawmaker.

In the end California legislators would decide to accept or reject the recommendations. That also sounds workable.

In Olympia, the Senate’s ongoing task force is on the verge of issuing its recommendations. The task force suggestions would go to the Senate’s Facilities and Operations Committee, which can set policies and sanction Senate members.

In the House, Chief Clerk Dean has said recommendations are expected by the end of the year.

But at this point neither Secretary of the Senate Brad Hendrickson nor Dean can say when the Senate and House might work together on a common strategy to handle and investigate complaints.

Though we commend the two legislative chambers for starting their work – and doing it in a way that includes the voices of individuals who have felt the pain of workplace harassment – we have reservations.

The lack of a strategy for creating a common or joint method for handling complaints looks like a big error that will play out in the months ahead.