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Key details still to solve in Capitol sex harassment policy

April 1, 2018

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — North Dakota lawmakers are setting procedures for handling reports of sexual harassment in the Capitol. Here’s a closer look at the process.

HOW DID IT COME ABOUT?

No cases of sexual harassment have been documented at the Capitol in recent years, but lawmakers in December decided to update the state’s two-paragraph policy following a wave of complaints in the national political and entertainment worlds amid the #MeToo movement against sexual violence and workplace harassment.

State policy already says sexual harassment won’t be tolerated, but there’s no process spelled out for reporting complaints.

IS THIS HAPPENING IN OTHER STATES?

It is. Many state legislatures have struggled with accusations or stories of sexual harassment in recent months, including nearby South Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

The National Conference of State Legislatures says there has been an unprecedented amount of legislation on the subject around the country this year. The NCSL website details bills in 29 states.

“States have introduced legislation to expel members, criminalize sexual harassment in legislatures, and mandate harassment training within the legislature, among other topics,” the organization says.

WHAT IS NORTH DAKOTA’S PROPOSAL?

The proposed three-page policy crafted by the Legislative Council — the Legislature’s research arm — addresses all forms of workplace harassment, including sexual harassment and harassment based on race, religion, ancestry or disabilities. It lists to whom complaints can be reported and crafts a process for resolving them.

The policy is for lawmakers, legislative employees, and “third parties” including lobbyists and reporters.

Officials looked at other states’ policies while drawing up North Dakota’s proposal, according to Legislative Council Legal Division Director John Bjornson.

It contains some of the elements that the NCSL lists as important, such as clearly defining what harassment is and applying the rules to third parties as well as lawmakers and staff.

It does not include some other elements, such as specific examples of potential discipline for lawmakers.

Lawmakers could be censured, but House Majority Leader Al Carlson says what that entails isn’t clear and “needs to be spelled out.”

“Sometimes that’s the best deterrent, knowing what the repercussions would be,” he said.

WHAT ARE OTHER POTENTIAL ISSUES?

Members of the Legislative Procedure and Arrangements Committee, which has the authority to adopt a policy, discussed numerous concerns and potential problems with the proposal at a recent meeting.

Among other things, lawmakers plan to look at whether those designated to take complaints would have time during a legislative session to adequately investigate, and whether the field of people who can handle complaints should be expanded.

“I also want to make sure that we don’t use (the policy) for political purposes,” Senate Minority Leader Joan Heckaman said.

The proposal says records of complaints wouldn’t be open to the public during active investigations, but that shield would be limited to no more than 75 days from the date of a complaint. However, it also says some records might constitute a Legislative Council “work product,” which is shielded from public disclosure.

Media attorney Jack McDonald said that might be a stretch. He says he doesn’t think the law was intended to cover up complaints.

WHAT’S NEXT?

Janelle Moos, a registered lobbyist and executive director of the CAWS North Dakota nonprofit that represents domestic violence and sexual assault crisis intervention centers, said the proposed policy is a good first step that still needs work.

The Legislative Procedure and Arrangements Committee will continue fine-tuning it. The group is to meet again in June.

“We definitely want to go into the (2019) session with a plan,” Carlson said, though he also added “we don’t want to get it so complicated we could never get (an investigation) done in a session.”

Lawmakers also said there is a need for sexual harassment training during the session.

“I think that education would save us lots of money and lots of time later on,” Carlson said.

Democratic Rep. Kathy Hogan also stressed the need for extra training of people designated to handle complaints.

“One of the consequences if you don’t ask the right questions, if the victims don’t feel listened to, that’s when you get your retaliation claims,” she said.

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Follow Blake Nicholson on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/NicholsonBlake

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