A select group of lawmakers charged with coming up with ideas for how to change the state Capitol’s policy on sexual harassment wrapped up its work on Thursday, leaving several key policy questions unresolved as partisan divisions split the panel. It is will be left to a new crop of lawmakers next session to tackle the more contentious issues.
The members on the Legislative Workplace Interim Study Committee, which was set up following a 2018 legislative session rocked by sexual harassment scandals, capped off their work by making several recommendations aimed at simplifying the complaint process. They also made strides at protecting the process from political interference by removing the role of party leadership almost entirely.
But issues dealing with who has the power to make recommendations for punishing lawmakers and how to the protect privacy of the people involved in complaints remain largely unresolved.
“I think we have done some constructive work,” said Sen. Bob Gardner, a Republican from Colorado Springs who served on the committee. “It has not been without some pretty strong disagreement.”
How the state Capitol handles charges of sexual harassment became a lightning rod issue after multiple complaints left the Capitol reeling last session. The tumult peaked with the historic expulsion of a male lawmaker accused by five women of sexual harassment, including a fellow lawmaker, Rep. Faith Winter, a Democrat from Westminster who served on the committee.
Thursday’s meeting was the last of five over the summer. But a shadow was cast over the panel’s work, as this week yet another state lawmaker, Democratic Rep. Jovan Melton, was asked to resign by leadership following newly revealed allegations that the Aurora Democrat was twice arrested on suspicion of domestic violence and harassment long before he became a state legislator. In 1999, Melton pleaded guilty to harassment. The second case, in 2008, was dismissed. Melton denies the allegations that he acted violently and said he will not resign.
In a statement to the The Denver Post, which first reported the story, he said that he was “both embarrassed and heartbroken to be reminded of my immaturity all those years ago.”
The Colorado Independent asked House Speaker Crisanta Duran, a term-limited Democrat from Denver who appointed herself to chair the committee reviewing the statehouse’s harassment policy, for an interview regarding the allegations. She said she does not have any say in whether Melton keeps his position as Democratic majority deputy whip. She then said she had another call to take and left the committee room.
The latest scandal complicated matters on what was already a busy day as lawmakers rushed to finalize a list of recommendations made over the past few months.
Here is a breakdown on key areas of agreement and disagreement that lawmakers will rekindle after the gavel drops on Jan. 4.
Committee members agreed that a new panel should be created to review investigations into allegations and make recommendations whether lawmakers facing allegations should be punished. Currently, this is the role of party leadership. A majority of the members agreed that investigation reports provided to this new panel should be redacted so that names are removed.
The committee recommended creating the Office of Legislative Workplace Relations to handle complaints and oversee training. It would be staffed by two full-time employees. Every year, this office would release non-identifying, aggregate data on informal and anonymous complaints filed with the office and brief party leadership of any informal complaints filed against members. There would also be an annual survey to review workplace harassment issues more generally.
Most committee members agreed annual harassment prevention training for lawmakers should be encouraged by making public a list of who attends training. The members recommended that partisan and nonpartisan staff should be required to attend training and that third parties, such as lobbyists, should be offered training.
Who should serve on this panel was a key area of disagreement among the members. Republicans want separate committees for each chamber composed only of lawmakers, who they feel must be responsible for making these decisions. Democrats say there should be lawmakers and outside experts on the committee, including an employment law professional, a victim’s advocate and human resource specialist, in order to break the potential for partisan gridlock and politicization.
Democrats on the interim work group want to release the names of lawmakers if an investigation determines they more likely than not violated the Capitol’s harassment policy. This information would be included in an executive summary available for public inspection. Republican members want the names to be released only if a committee recommends a resolution to the General Assembly for punishment.
‘The election will matter’
The committee was split evenly among Democrats and Republicans. Democratic reps. Duran and Winter were joined by Sen. Dominick Moreno, a Democrat from Commerce City. In addition to Gardner, other Republicans included Sen. Beth Martinez Humenik, a Republican from Thornton who is facing an election challenge from Winter, and Rep. Kim Ransom, a Republican from Lone Tree.
Given the partisan divides on several issues, members of the committee noted that the November election will likely determine where the state Legislature lands on these issues next session. Republicans hold a one-seat majority in the upper chamber, and Democrats are running to unseat Republicans in two competitive districts this year.
“There are some outstanding issues,” said Duran. “The election will matter tremendously.”