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Oregon Lawmakers Move To Create An Equity Office To Curb Harassment

More than a year after allegations of sexual misconduct rocked the Oregon Legislature, lawmakers in the House agreed Thursday to overhaul a rule addressing harassment and discrimination and to create a new equity office tasked with improving the Capitol's workplace culture.

The measures now head to the Senate.

An investigation by the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries concluded that the state Legislature had not done enough to curb hostile and inappropriate interactions. The discussions about harassment often exposed deep political divides, but both parties in the House on Thursday spoke to the importance of making the state Capitol an institution where harassment is not tolerated.

“I can speak for many women in this body: We spent many years dismissing and ignoring bad behavior because it was simply easier,” said Rep. Denyc Boles, R-Salem, who sat on the newly-created Joint Committee On Capitol Culture. “I’m proud today that we have decided not to do that anymore.”

Rep. Sherri Sprenger, R-Scio, said initially she did not want to sit on the joint committee. But she was disheartened when members of her own staff said they would not feel confident reporting harassment for fear of losing control of their own story.

Sprenger said the legislation would protect employees, citizens and lobbyists, and it will allow victims of harassment to keep their story confidential if they choose.

But Rep. Mike McLane, R-Prineville, warned his colleagues that some of the language in the new rule could obstruct free speech.

“This body is not about protecting the feelings, the emotions of people. This body is about the expression of ideas, political thoughts, opinions — even when those opinions are wrong or choices of words seem offensive, they have the right to be uttered in this Capitol,” said McLane, who is leaving the Legislature to become a judge. “Free speech is the cornerstone of all the other liberties we enjoy.”

In February 2018, then-Sen. Jeff Kruse, R-Roseburg, resigned his position in the state Legislature after an investigation revealed that he had a pattern of unwanted touching and harassment.

Two of his former legislative interns, both law school students, have sued, claiming legislative leaders knew of the harassment and failed to protect them.

The Senate president and House speaker asked the Oregon Law Commission to review the Legislature’s harassment policies and make recommendations to the Joint Committee on Capitol Culture.

Rep. Jennifer Williamson, D-Portland, said the resulting bill protects free speech and ensures speech that is restricted is “so severe and pervasive” that it prevents a person from being able to function in the workplace.

“This bill doesn’t make it illegal to be a jerk. You can still be a jerk when we pass this. But we do need to protect people,” she said.

The total cost of the measures House members approved is $1.4 million in the next two-year budget cycle. Here are the changes HCR 20 and House Bill 3377 would make:

Puts the Joint Committee on Conduct in state law. The committee will be made up of an equal number of Democrats and Republicans and  its membership will be voted on by the entire Legislature.

Creates a new nonpartisan office called the Legislative Equity Office and an equity officer who will help people who have concerns and oversee anti-harassment training. The office will be located near but outside the state Capitol, to maintain a sense of independence, and it will give an annual report and conduct regular surveys of lawmakers, their staff and lobbyists.

Mandates that reports of sexual misconduct and discrimination will go to an independent investigator. 

Creates a leadership team, made up of lawmakers, staff, lobbyists and contract employees, who are charged with promoting a productive and inclusive environment at the state Capitol.

Extends the statute of limitations on when someone can make a conduct complaint from one year to five years.

Copyright 2019 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Lauren Dake is a political reporter and producer for Oregon Public Broadcasting. Before OPB, Lauren spent nearly a decade working as a print reporter. She’s covered politics and rural issues in Oregon and Washington.