People who interact with state representatives — including constituents, lobbyists and members of the media — now have an avenue to address complaints of harassment and discrimination by elected officials and legislative staff.
The Minnesota House on Wednesday made the first change in a decade to its harassment policies, joining a number of other states that have added protections for third parties and the lawmakers and staff who interact with them. The new rules apply to actions by or against House members and their employees, both when they are at the Capitol or participating in legislative business in the community.
"I don't view this as necessarily the end of the process ... We need to take action now, get a good start and let our staff have additional time to find out if there's additional things that we should be doing," said House Majority Leader Joyce Peppin, R-Rogers, who led a subcommittee that came up with the changes.
That subcommittee is morphing into a task force that will continue to oversee work on harassment policies after the legislative session ends in May. By December, House staffers are expected to conduct a survey on discrimination and harassment and come up with a plan to train House members and employees. They must also develop a dedicated phone number and e-mail address to take misconduct complaints, along with a web page with information about harassment and how to report it.
The #MeToo movement and sexual harassment allegations against two legislators last year spurred the action. Former Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, and former Sen. Dan Schoen, DFL-St. Paul Park, resigned in November.
Senate staff have been reviewing and updating their policies separately but have not yet announced any changes.
The updated House policy takes effect immediately. It allows the body's nonpartisan human resources director and legal counsel to hire an outside investigator — without approval from legislators — to look into potential violations.
The House has limited power to compel people who are not members of the Legislature to participate in investigations or discipline, the policy notes. But it says the House will investigate reports involving them "to the best of its ability and will take reasonable action within its power to stop harassment and discrimination by or against members or employees in the course of their work with third parties."
An outside investigator's findings must be reported to not just the House speaker but also the minority leader, under the revised policy. And House legal counsel is required to send party leaders a memo with any recommended policy and practice changes based on an investigation's findings.
"It takes the partisanship out of it, regardless of who the leadership is at the current time," Peppin said. She said it is important to make sure both Republicans and DFLers receive the findings, so one side cannot suppress information.
Additionally, the policy now specifies that someone's actions or words do not have to be "severe or pervasive," which has long been the legal standard for harassment. Peppin and Sen. Karin Housley, R-St. Mary's Point, also introduced a bill this week to change that standard not just in the Legislature but statewide.
Earlier this year, DFL Rep. John Lesch of St. Paul and GOP Rep. Marion O'Neill of Maple Lake proposed a different plan for handling complaints. It would have required the House speaker to refer a complaint to the ethics committee within a week and set deadlines for the committee to hold hearings and report on recommended action.
"It was really important to me that there be some kind of timeline requirement where we cannot be allowed to scuttle or sit on these things," Lesch said Wednesday.
The revised policy does not go far enough, Lesch said. He said House leaders should be required to take action when they get a complaint. Peppin said the task force will continue to look into those concerns and other policy changes in the coming months.