The Capitol is set to hire an independent human resources person in the wake of numerous harassment allegations. It’s not yet clear what role the new HR person would play, but it may take any formal complaints or investigations out of the hands of legislative leadership.
Workplace harassment investigations have historically fallen to House and Senate leaders – an arrangement seen by some as a conflict of interest and for others it’s a deterrent to filing claims.
The move comes about a month after we began an ongoing series of reports about allegations of sexual harassment in the state’s most high-profile workplace.
As Bente Birkeland reports, the Capitol is set to hire an independent human resources person in the wake of numerous harassment allegations. However, lawmakers still have to decide how expansive the new role would be.
In a meeting at the Capitol on Dec. 15, leaders also agreed to hire an outside consultant to improve the conditions under which people can come forward with claims of misconduct. Sexual harassment training will be expanded to include more aides and interns — and possibly lobbyists. It will occur yearly instead of every other year.
“All of us who have been blessed, who have been honored to serve in this building — the people’s building — want to do everything within our power to ensure that this is a safe, welcoming, dignified, comfortable place for conducting the people’s business,” said Senate President Kevin Grantham, the Republican who chaired the meeting.
He acknowledged that the discussions are unchartered territory for the legislature.
“The question is, ‘Is this a perfectly functioning system?’ Evidently not,” Grantham said. “Otherwise we wouldn’t be here today. We wouldn’t be holding this meeting searching for ways to improve our procedures.”
Speaker of the House Crisanta Duran echoed the concern: “There are actions and rhetoric that have become normalized that are unacceptable and inappropriate. We also have to have a conversation and feedback as to how we change the culture at the capitol.”
Lawmakers decided that an HR person should be hired at the Capitol immediately.
Still, there seemed to be uncertainty about how much power that new HR person would have, as Senate Majority Leader Chris Holbert, a Republican, wondered.
“Does that (HR) person then handle that issue from start to finish? Or does he or she do an incoming report and evaluation and refer it to the existing people who are the reporting contacts? I don’t know which way is right,” Holbert said.
That’s something lawmakers will have to decide when they return to the Capitol on Jan. 10. Changes to the workplace harassment policy require legislative approval.
“The goal probably for most of us is, ‘How do we change the climate?'” said Senate Minority Leader Lucia Guzman, a Democrat. “Because if we don’t get a climate where these things are prevented, then we have done very little and all of this has been ineffective.”
Forty aides and interns submitted a letter to legislative leaders asking for reforms. In addition to the changes, legislative leaders already agreed to, they want more security, saying they are fearful of having to work with lawmakers under investigation or those they’ve had problems with.
The letters asks for “increased State Patrol presence around the offices of the accused; Installation of panic buttons in all offices and cubicles throughout the Capitol” and associated offices.
One thing lawmakers didn’t talk about was transparency. No part of a formal complaint is public record. That’s problematic for many who want to know at least the number of incidents and the name of lawmakers who are investigated and found guilty of doing wrong.
“Ultimately the voters are the boss of the lawmaker and so if the media and the voters do not have the information about the performance of the lawmaker they can’t do anything about it,” said Erin Hottenstein the founder of the group Colorado 50/50, which tries to get women to run for elected office.
On Nov. 10, we were the first to report allegations about the conduct of Rep. Steve Lebsock, a Democrat from Thornton who is running for state Treasurer. He is facing two formal complaints, including one from Rep. Faith Winter, also a Democrat, as well as allegations from nine other women. They allege he harassed, intimidated or made unwanted sexual advances against them.
Lebsock denies any wrongdoing.
We also broke the story of additional complaints – and allegations of sexual harassment – against Sens. Randy Baumgardner and Jake Tate. Both are Republicans.
Additionally, Rep. Paul Rosenthal, a Democrat, is facing a complaint from his former roommate.
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.