Capitol Conversation: Report Suggests Ways To Address Harassment At Colorado Capitol

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Originally published on April 10, 2018 8:41 am

A 235-page report from an outside consultant says the culture at Colorado’s state capitol is unhealthy -- and the system in place to detect and deter harassment is not working. It contains about two dozen recommendations on how to improve the culture and strengthen policies to deter workplace harassment – which means legislative leaders have a lot to wade through and some tough decisions ahead.

Statehouse reporter Bente Birkeland spoke with Brian Eason of the Associated Press and John Frank with the Denver Post about how lawmakers might use the information to make changes.

Interview highlights

On the scope of the problem:

Frank: One big takeaway from this report really confirms the reporting that culture is a problem at the capitol when it comes to harassment. We have one-third of the people surveyed saying they’ve seen or witnessed sexual harassment. One interesting recommendation [in the report] is to move the investigation of complaints to an outside independent body. That has already created concerns from lawmakers. They don’t put it this bluntly, but they’re asking really tough questions about whether they want to remove themselves from this policy. This policy currently allows lawmakers to police themselves, and it builds in that protection for political parties to try to protect their own. And then there’s the question of discipline. Under the constitution, only lawmakers can discipline lawmakers.

On what makes this issue so complicated to tackle:

Eason: One of the things lawmakers are going to have to grapple with is this [the fact that] this isn’t a normal workplace. The elected officials aren’t beholden to a normal boss – they’re beholden to voters, and we’ve seen that play out recently with some of these expulsion resolutions. There’s going to be a real trick for lawmakers to figure out how to balance transparency and confidentiality, among a number of other issues. I think you’ll also see, potentially, some partisan splits on the best way to handle this; I mean, we already had a partisan split over just who to hire to conduct the investigation. I think there’s going to be a lot of work ahead.

On the question of how motivated lawmakers are to find solutions:

Frank: The lawmakers are talking about pushing this to summer, to working groups – not even an interim committee but something informal like a working group. There’s also talk of bringing in the public, and other lawmakers. So really, there’s no clear consensus on where to go except that immediate action is not the best idea. They want to take a slow and deliberate approach. The problem with that is that some of these legislative leaders won’t be here next year. And I’m not sure the next legislative leaders want to inherit a scandal from the prior session. This is an endemic problem, as the report shows, and one – it’s not going to be easy to fix, and two – it’s going to have far-reaching political implications.

Capitol Coverage is a collaborative public policy reporting project, providing news and analysis to communities across Colorado for more than a decade. Fifteen public radio stations participate in Capitol Coverage from throughout Colorado.

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