If legislators and other state officials aren't yet completely convinced that the time has come to fix the workplace culture at the Capitol, here's a figure that should be persuasive:
One million dollars.
That's the amount the Legislature this week agreed to pay to nine victims of harassment in a settlement with the state Bureau of Labor and Industries. That's the branch of state government that in January reported it had found substantial evidence that employees and legislators had been harassed. In addition, the bureau found, Senate President Peter Courtney and House Speaker Tina Kotek, as well as other administrators responsible for responding to harassment allegations, had been ineffective in handling those complaints.
Eight women, not identified in the settlement, will share noneconomic damages in amounts ranging up to $415,000. State Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, will get $26,000 for legal fees and other expenses but didn't seek damages, the labor bureau said.
Gelser was among two state senators who came forward in late 2017 to allege sexual harassment against Sen. Jeff Kruse, a Roseburg Republican. Kruse resigned after a devastating outside investigation found that he had touched women inappropriately for years, despite warnings to stop that behavior.
In the wake of the report on Kruse and his behavior, the state labor bureau launched its own investigation into the workplace environment in the Capitol. The issuance of its report in January paved the way for the negotiations that resulted in this week's settlement, even though some legislative leaders complained (with some justification) that the report contained inaccuracies and was incomplete. (The settlement did require the bureau to admit that the investigation was flawed in some regards, and so it includes language to the effect that the bureau's complaint process "was politicized in a manner that inhibited both sides from participating thoroughly in the investigation." A copy of the agreement is attached to the online version of this editorial.)
The settlement removes at least part of the cloud that has been hanging over the Legislature since the bureau released its report in January. But it does not mean, by any stretch, that legislative leaders and other state officials are done with their work of improving the workplace culture in the Capitol.
To that end, the settlement also requires the Legislature to adopt recommendations set forth in a December report by the Oregon Law Commission. Those recommendations call for continued efforts from the Legislature's leaders to address harassment issues, including:
• Implementing a system in which complaints can be filed in a confidential manner.
• Abolishing a legislative rule that only allows complainants to file a sexual harassment complaint within a year of the incident.
• Establishing training policies and programs, and extending those training requirements to lobbyists and contractors.
• Eliminating the role of the offices of the legislative counsel and legislative administration in investigations of harassment allegations.
The commission's report also called for the creation of a staffed equity office to receive workplace complaints, with oversight coming from a new bipartisan Joint Conduct Committee.
But here's where legislators are going to have to work hard to strike a proper balance between giving the proper protection to complainants and being sure that members of the public have adequate access to information that will allow them to judge the effectiveness of this legislative effort to improve workplace culture. It would be easy (and tempting) for legislators to toss a veil of secrecy over all the work of this new office.
But Oregon citizens have reasons to demand at least some public access to the work of the equity office. How many reasons? Oh, about a million. (mm)