Sexual Harassment Policies For Vermont Legislature Come Under Scrutiny

Dec 14, 2017

House Speaker Mitzi Johnson and Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe say they’re considering potentially significant changes to the process used to investigate allegations of sexual harassment in the Vermont Statehouse.

Johnson told reporters Thursday that the national spotlight on sexual misconduct in the workplace has compelled House lawmakers to re-examine their process for vetting complaints.

“I just received from legislative council two days ago a thorough review of where we could make improvements, both in the small tweak category, and … some more controversial steps forward,” Johnson says.

For instance, Johnson says the five-member House Sexual Harassment Prevention Panel is made up exclusively of lawmakers. For lobbyists or Statehouse staff seeking to lodge a complaint, Johnson says the board’s composition may appear intimidating.

“Maybe it’s not appropriate for the panel to be made up of all legislators, when sexual harassment is about a power differential, and there’s a tremendous power differential within the Statehouse,” Johnson says.

Ashe says the Senate is also reviewing the rules and responsibilities governing its Sexual Harassment Panel.

As VPR reported earlier this month, an individual lodged an allegation of sexual misconduct against a sitting Vermont senator during the last legislative session. Ashe says the experience highlighted potential shortcomings in the Senate’s process for investigating complaints.

"I don't think there's a member of the Senate who doesn't believe that we all collectively have to do a better job of creating the right environment that people deserve to work in." — Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe

“One of the issues, I’ll just tell you that we are going to have to evaluate is whether the amount of information which currently our policies allow to be revealed is sufficient,” Ashe says.

Under existing Senate rules, the identities of both the alleged victim and perpetrator are confidential, as is the nature of the complaint. Ashe says he doesn’t know the identity of the senator accused of misconduct last April.

The case was resolved without any formal disciplinary action. But Ashe says it has prompted more general questions about the Senate policy.

“On the one hand, if a complaint is brought and it turns out there is no substance to it … the question is, what information is then revealed to the public, if any? And then conversely, if there’s a very serious episode where the panel believes something has happened, we need to know what should be released,” Ashe says.

Johnson says she has personal experience with the corrosive effects of inappropriate behavior in the Statehouse.

“I’ve been in very uncomfortable situations,” Johnson says. “I’ve been in situations where I’ve sought legal advice about, is there something that I could do to address this? So I have a really personal interest in making sure that everybody across Vermont’s demographics feel safe and welcome and feel like they can give their best here.”

And she says public scrutiny of the Legislature’s sexual harassment policies is a welcome arrival.

“I think the overall goal here is, in light of the increased awareness, which I think is an incredible benefit and development within the state, how can we create a gold standard of sexual harassment prevention and training and reporting, so that we can take appropriate action, and we can make sure that this statehouse is a welcoming place for everybody to give their best to Vermont?” Johnson says.

Ashe says he thinks the Senate still has a ways to go to achieve that gold standard.

“I don’t think there’s a member of the Senate who doesn’t believe that we all collectively have to do a better job of creating the right environment that people deserve to work in,” Ashe says.