Oregon’s leaders need long-term strategies

This Jan. 11, 2018, file photo, shows dark clouds hovering over the Capitol in Salem.

A scathing report about sexual harassment in the Oregon Capitol is both deeply disturbing and deeply flawed.

Legislative leaders must take its concerns seriously, instead of focusing on its shortcomings so as to protect their reputation. Regardless of what Senate President Peter Courtney, Speaker Tina Kotek and others say, they failed to adequately address sexual harassment through meaningful training, effective monitoring and swift action against offenders.

They are not alone. State archives show that lawmakers as far back as the 1990s struggled with how to address sexual harassment. The slight progress made since then is demoralizing.

A state Bureau of Labor and Industries’ Civil Rights Division report issued last week found substantial evidence of unlawful employment practices based on sex. Critics of the report will say that is no surprise, because the investigation was instigated through a complaint filed by the head of BOLI, Brad Avakian.

Indeed, much of the report does read as if it were designed to reach a pre-ordained conclusion. Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, who like Sen. Sara Gelser had filed a sexual harassment complaint against Sen. Jeff Kruse, said she was not interviewed by the BOLI investigators and disagreed with their conclusions. The failure to talk with Steiner Hayward and some other key figures is odd and diminishes the investigators’ findings.

But the overall issues raised in the report remain valid.

The report was released just days before Avakian’s term as BOLI commissioner ended. That leaves it up to his successor, Val Hoyle, to recommend any sanctions, including whether interns who were sexually harassed should receive compensation.

A Capitol work environment can be toxic because of the overwhelming imbalance of power. Everyone wants to gain the approval of elected officials and is expected to treat them deferentially. People have the valid fear they will be marginalized — politically, professionally and socially — if they complain.

“I believe harassment is based on power,” lawyer P.K. Runkles-Pearson told Kotek, Courtney and other members of a legislative committee last month. “It starts with the power associated with privilege. …

“Enhanced power relationships inherently make it difficult for anyone to make waves. And this includes victims of harassment, those who observe harassment and those who are charged with addressing harassment.”

Courtney and Kotek had asked the Oregon Law Commission to recommend improvements in how the Legislature dealt with sexual harassment. Runkles-Pearson chairs that work group. Its upcoming report — a draft was released last month — calls for a complete change in Capitol culture and offers a series of recommendations.

There is no justification whatsoever for sexual harassment of any form or in any place or against any person. Yet there are those in the Capitol, including some legislators, who still seem to believe in “Boys will be boys,” “Go along to get along” and “Quit your whining!” It will be difficult, but imperative, to help them understand what sexual harassment actually is and how it affects the victims.

“The way you change culture is that you have people in power show that they want the environment to change,” Runkles-Pearson said.

So true. Instead of arguing whether the Capitol was or was not a hostile workplace, legislative leaders must ensure it is not one. Update the rules, overhaul the training and start to change the culture so the Oregon Capitol truly is a harassment-free environment for everyone.

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