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An Open Letter to Los Angeles City Council Regarding Sexual Harassment Policy from California National Organization for Women

Los Angeles City Council Should Choose Substance Over Form To Improve Sexual Harassment Policy

Herb Wesson’s and Nury Martinez’ solution that seeks to spend an enormous amount of city resources on in-person sexual harassment training will do little to either change the culture of city government or enhance employee protections. Los Angeles City Councilmembers need to concentrate on the substance of sexual harassment training not the form that it takes. The press statements made by Councilmember Huizar’s representatives regarding the sexual harassment allegations demonstrate a serious lack of knowledge about what acts constitutes sexual harassment by managers.

In addition to abusing a position of power by demanding sexual access in exchange for keeping a job or granting a promotion or raise, sexual harassment also occurs when a manager engages in a consensual relationship with a subordinate because the subordinates’ real or perceived special access and/or career advancement that occurs during the relationship creates employment criteria that no other employee can or is willing to provide. It is unknown whether anyone has or will file a complaint based on these public admissions that exposes the city councilmember, the subordinate and the employer to liability under sexual harassment law. It is also unclear whether the mandated two-hour online sexual harassment training directed at managers covers this area of sexual harassment law. What is clear, both Mr. Huizar, the rest of the sitting city councilmembers, their staff, city managers and employees need comprehensive sexual harassment training that includes best practices regarding consensual relationships between managers and subordinates.

Because the City of Los Angeles, by that I mean the taxpayers will ultimately be paying for claims stemming from inappropriate sexual relationships between managers and staff, as well as other forms of inappropriate behavior, the key word therefore connected in any productive discussion of training is “comprehensive.” A comprehensive training would convey that a sexual relationship between a manager and a subordinate staff member is inappropriate period. The city of Los Angeles should have a written policy barring such relationships, including but not limited to appropriate transfer and notice policies.

In addition, moving the City of Los Angeles toward a more transparent and accountable government could be accomplished by ensuring that the City Personnel Department is transparent and fair for all employees, including council and mayoral staff. Training in whatever form is meaningless if employees know the culture, especially within the council remains hostile to holding elected officials to the same standards that everyone else should and must abide. Independent, fair, and timely investigations of complaints should be the norm. Retaliation for making a complaint should be treated as the betrayal of trust that it represents. That is the path that enhances employee protections.

Changing the culture of City of Los Angeles government is accomplished by an open and transparent system based on mutual respect and equity. Currently public officials at the federal, state and local level put themselves above the law, especially concerning employer-employee matters. It’s time for such special treatment to end. For far too long “personnel issues” have been kept secret from the public. Costing taxpayers millions, not just in settlements, but in inefficient and ineffective governing caused by that very lack of transparency and accountability.

[sam_ad id="1" codes="true"]It is true that the electorate is the final word on whether the actions or inactions of elected officeholders matter to them, but that final word should not be thwarted by deliberate non-disclosure by law or by consent of the parties.

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Unfortunately the lack of transparency and accountability is nothing new. At the time that civil rights laws were being enacted and implemented federal, state, and local officials made sure to protect themselves from enforcement or at least disclosure of enforcement. For example, Capitol Hill staffers are forced through a gauntlet of procedural hurdles at the Congressional Office of Compliance. In 1975, the California Legislature exempted itself from the California Public Records Act and both the Senate and the Assembly have used this exemption to keep sexual harassment and other employment discrimination claims and settlements out of the public’s eye. That law remains unchanged today.

The California Legislature also exempts itself from adhering to wage and hour laws, as well as, equal pay for equal work laws. Legislative employees are at will with no rights to for cause hiring protections. All serve at the “pleasure” of the Assembly Speaker and Senate ProTem. They are not hired by the members, so their employment depends on pleasing the leadership rather than the member and the public that they serve.

The culture of social dominance that these policies perpetuate is not limited to elected officeholders. It is sadly clear from the recent statements surrounding the current sexual harassment complaints that too many individuals in business and labor still believe that sexual harassment is a “private” or “personal” matter having nothing to do with a manager’s or elected officeholder’s “public” duties or responsibilities. The act of separating out decision-makers as being above the law or granted special protections establishes a culture of dominance. A culture that places greater value on the manager’s and/or elected officeholder’s career than the careers of employees or the duties and obligations owed to the public.

We all should be working in partnership founded upon mutual respect demonstrated by equally valuing each other’s contributions – managers, employees and elected officeholders alike. Leading by example, not just words. Using organizational hierarchies to actualize the potential of every employee, including the manager and elected officeholder; rather than stifling innovation and productive change by clinging to power relationships based on dominance and submission.

Sexual harassment, bullying, intimidation, disrespect, and every other form of social dominance oriented behavior matters not just to the individuals who are in close proximity to the offender(s), but to society as a whole. Such actions do impact policy choices and reveal who and what that person values.

The personal is political. Sexual harassment is a public matter. The women involved deserve a full, fair and timely investigation. So does the public.


Patricia Bellasalma