Hoping to nip future problems before they get out of hand, House Speaker J.D. Mesnard on Monday released a detailed policy designed to curb sexual harassment.
Mesnard told Capitol Media Services that he believes it has always been a violation of House policy, if not state law, for lawmakers and staffers to make unwelcome sexual advances or offensive remarks. And he said that is conveyed to new legislators and employees when they first take office or are hired.
But Mesnard said people tend to stay at the Capitol for a decade or more.
“A periodic reminder might become the norm for the future,” he said.
What’s been the more pressing issue is to spell out, on paper, what’s off limits as well as the procedures that should be followed when a complaint is made.
The move is not coming in a vacuum.
It follows a Facebook post more than a week ago by Rep. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale, saying that from the moment she took office in 2011, she experienced “unwanted sexual advances and lewd and suggestive comments regarding my body and appearance from male colleagues.”
As the behavior became “more aggressive and brazen,” Ugenti-Rita said she complained to House leadership.
Ugenti-Rita did not identify those who she said assailed her. And Kirk Adams, who was House speaker at the time, said he does not question that she complained but did not recall it.
Mesnard said what he crafted will create a more formalized policy, covering everything from who can take complaints to the procedures they should follow.
What the policy also has is some very specific definitions of what is off limits.
It starts with any “unequal and unlawful treatment of an individual,” including unwelcome verbal, written, physical or electronic communications “that either degrades or shows hostility or aversion towards a person arising because of that person’s inclusion in one of the categories protected by state or federal civil rights laws.” That includes race, religion, ethnicity and gender.
And Mesnard said sexual harassment in particular already is spelled out in federal and state laws, including unwelcome sexual advances, harassment “that is inherently sexual in nature,” offensive remarks about a person’s gender, and any sort of promise of advancement or benefit in exchange for sexual favors.
Also forbidden, he said, is the other side of the equation, meaning creating a “hostile work environment” and retaliation.
“Most of it isn’t new,” Mesnard said. “But it hasn’t always been written or public.”
More to the point, he said, the policy hasn’t always been clear.
“We wanted to put it all out there,” the speaker said.
Ugenti-Rita, whose public comments triggered all this, called what Mesnard put together “a good first step.”
Most important, she said, it should provide some guidance and some protections to future lawmakers who won’t have to go through the same hassles – and she says lack of formal action – that she faced.
“We have this ‘it depends’ policy on who’s in leadership,” Ugenti-Rita said Monday after a preliminary review of the written policy. “It depends on who wants to take it seriously.”
And she pointed out that Mesnard even has gotten into the details of not only how an inquiry should be conducted but even forms with notes and checklists of what should be asked of both the person making the accusations and the person who is accused of harassment.
“None of that stuff existed” when she went to House leadership, Ugenti-Rita said.
“When I reached out about what our internal policies were I was sent a link to a federal website,” she recalled. “So, I am happy to see that it looks like there’s going to be more structure to the process.”
In posting her comments on Facebook, Ugenti-Rita said she hopes they encourage others to come forward to address sexual and workplace harassment. And she called for a “formal process” at the Legislature “that encourages people to feel safe to raise instances of any harassment they are experiencing.”
Mesnard said he has had a handful of people come to him since becoming speaker earlier this year.
“It doesn’t come up a lot,” he said.
“I’m almost always asked to not intervene but just to be aware,” Mesnard said. “If I’m told, I’m told for my knowledge and I’m not supposed to do anything about it.”
And if victims do not want to pursue the matter, he said, that leaves him with few options.
“I don’t know what other recourse in those situations we’ve got other than to make sure we revisit members, make sure we have training to remind all members what ethical requirements we are operating under here, and continue to remind people of those things,” Mesnard said.
There’s also the question of whether the complaints should be public.
On one hand, Mesnard said that, as a public body – and with elected members – there is a presumption that most everything is open.
“We could be in this pickle where the very fact that what we do is public could discourage folks from coming forward because they want to handle it privately,” he said. But Mesnard said it all comes out in the open if it deals with a lawmaker and gets to the point where it would go to the Ethics Committee.
One issue Mesnard is sidestepping for the time being deals with harassment based on someone’s sexual orientation, as that is not a “protected” class under current state or federal law.
Mesnard said the main purpose of what he put together was to make people aware of what harassment is and where to go if they are a victim.
“Obviously, there are many policy discussions we may have moving forward about what should be under the umbrella of protected classes,” he said. “I didn’t want to delve into that putting this policy out there because then we get tangled up in an ongoing policy discussion.”
Mesnard said he is not interesting in condoning discrimination based on sexual orientation and said “most people in this building feel that way.”