Montana lawmakers reviewing sexual harassment policy

HELENA (AP) — Montana lawmakers are reviewing the legislature’s sexual harassment policy after accusations of sexual misconduct led to the downfall of other lawmakers across the country.

The legislature has a rule that prohibits harassment of legislators and legislative employees and sets guidelines for reporting inappropriate behavior. The Legislative Council reviewed the policy at a meeting last month in Bozeman to consider whether changes are needed.

While Democrats who spoke felt there should be mandatory sexual harassment training, Republicans suggested sexual misconduct wasn’t really an issue at the Montana Legislature and the heightened awareness after the news of the last several months would keep things that way.

In the past year, at least 14 legislators in 10 states have resigned from office following accusations of sexual harassment or misconduct, The Associated Press found in a 50-state review. At least 16 others in more than a dozen states have faced other repercussions, such as the voluntary or forced removal from legislative leadership positions. Others are under investigation.

Susan Byorth Fox, executive director of Montana’s Legislative Services Division, told lawmakers on Dec. 13 that there had been no formal complaints of sexual misconduct made under the harassment rule. She said state legislative staffers have sought advice about dealing with inappropriate behavior and she has asked them if they’ve told the person they were offended.

“Things just seem to kind of take care of themselves,” Fox said, adding that she believes it’s best to handle such issues at the lowest level possible.

“The only thing I’d say on this is, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,'” said Senate President Scott Sales, a Republican from Bozeman.

Democratic Rep. Jenny Eck of Helena suggested the training be made mandatory with clear explanations of what constitutes sexual harassment, while Democratic Sen. Tom Facey of Missoula suggested lobbyists also be required to attend.

Sales said in the seven sessions he’s served in the Legislature, one complaint was brought to him “where an individual member was being more friendly to a staffer than they appreciated.” Sales said he handled it with a conversation and noted that was 10 years ago.

“I think we have a great track record if we don’t have any official complaints,” Sales said. “With the heightened visibility that the subject has, going forward I think there’s going to be less of this in the future. I think this is going to solve itself.”

House Speaker Austin Knudsen, a Republican from Culbertson, said he would support changing the current procedure so harassment complaints couldn’t be heard in public legislative hearings, but did not feel any other changes were needed.

“Right now, if you are a sitting legislator and are behaving in an inappropriate manner … with what we’ve seen around the country, you are not going to be the legislature very long,” Knudsen said.

Eck countered that female legislators may have a different perception than male legislators “as to what the culture is in the Legislature.”

“I do think there is room for training. There is room for better understanding about what sexual harassment is, what a safe workplace is,” she said. “I don’t see any harm in expecting all our members to understand that.”

The Legislative Council asked legislative staffers to research what other states are doing and how the Montana rule might be changed to protect the privacy of people who report harassment or misconduct. The committee meets again in March.

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