A special panel of lawmakers met for months ahead of the legislative session to develop new rules to address concerns about a toxic climate at the Capitol but agreed only to an interim revised workplace harassment policy for the new term.
Many of the substantive issues regarding how complaints and disciplinary action are handled met with partisan disagreement and stalled. And many of the recommendations from an outside investigation of the Capitol culture in 2018 sit untouched.
Now, led by state Sen. Faith Winter, the new Democratic majority at the statehouse is looking to revive the discussion and make permanent changes in law and policies beginning with a meeting Friday.
Winter — whose allegations against Rep. Steve Lebsock in November 2017 first exposed a culture that some say tolerated sexual harassment — is the first to acknowledge more work in needed.
“This is a tough issue that will take a lot of minds and a lot of solutions for progress,” the Westminster Democrat said. “This should be enough of a priority that the conversation will continue. We can’t pretend to fix it in one year.”
The conversation, however, could prove difficult as it revisits a sensitive issue loaded with major political ramifications and rekindles the controversies from the 2018 session in which five lawmakers were accused of sexual harassment.
Earlier this year, the annual workplace harassment training even became a point of contention for a couple of Republican lawmakers who complained about pressure to attend even though it is not mandatory.
In November, the Legislative Workplace Interim Study Committee agreed to an interim workplace harassment policy, but it still needs to be codified in the legislative rules.
The majority of the changes to the policy — which governs the behavior of legislative staffers, aides, lawmakers and third parties — are clarifications. The changes included:
- Formalizing the role of the new legislative human resources administrator hired in response to shortcomings in the rules identified amid the controversies in 2018.
- Refining the “preponderance of evidence” standard, a lower burden of proof for complaints.
- Defining the responsibilities of the parties involved in the complaint and outlining a timeline for resolution.
The next step for Democratic lawmakers is to develop a new process for handling complaints. The discussions center on the formation of a new committee to oversee an independent investigation of formal complaints and their resolution.
“We still haven’t clarified how we resolve complaints when they are found likely to have happened,” Winter said. “We need to find a resolution to complaints in a way that encourages people to come forward.”
The legislative committee that met before this year’s session discussed this idea, but it failed to reach consensus on many details, such as the makeup of the committee and whether to release the final report to the public. One point of contention is whether lawmakers should discipline themselves or whether independent voices are needed to detach the process from politics.
Sen. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs, is arguing that the committee should only include lawmakers as voting members because only lawmakers can vote to discipline or expel a member.
“It is very important that legislators stand up and say we are responsible for doing this,” he said.
The effort to rework the rules and craft a new system is expected to continue through the session that ends in early May.