The Capitol in Olympia is seen in April 2019. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, file)

The Capitol in Olympia is seen in April 2019. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, file)

State Senate makes tweaks to workplace conduct rules

Staffers are concerned that every complaint they make, no matter how small, will be made public.

By Rachel La Corte / Associated Press

OLYMPIA — While the Washington Senate will continue to automatically release full investigative reports on sexual harassment or discrimination by senators, other types of workplace complaints against lawmakers might not automatically be sent out by the secretary of the Senate, under an update to workplace rules adopted Tuesday.

One-off complaints about intimidation or other conduct by lawmakers that spark an investigation are still subject to public disclosure if a public records request is made, and under the adopted rules, Secretary of the Senate Brad Hendrickson can still choose to automatically release any investigation, even without an official request, on those complaints if he determines “that such release is in the public interest or required by law.”

The Senate Facilities and Operations Committee, which oversees personnel issues, voted unanimously Tuesday to approve the change to the respectful workplace policy that was first adopted in the midst of the #MeToo movement.

Senate Human Resource Officer Alison Hellberg said that staffers are concerned that every complaint they make, no matter how small, will automatically be made public.

“The policy was not well equipped to deal with some of the less serious, less egregious behaviors that are still problematic,” she told the committee, saying that many staffers felt uncomfortable coming forward about complaints due to the formality of the process.

However, in cases where an investigation finds that a senator subjected someone to harassment or discrimination, those findings will always be automatically released publicly, excluding the names and identifying information of accusers.

In December, the state Supreme Court ruled lawmakers are fully subject to the state’s Public Records Act, something officials at the Legislature had long disputed. While seven of the nine justices agreed the offices of individual lawmakers are subject to the Public Records Act, six of them ruled that the Legislature is only subject to a much more limited scope of records available through the House clerk and the secretary of the Senate, which allows for some records to still be withheld.

For example, if a staffer makes a complaint against another staffer, and the only holders of the complaint are the secretary of the Senate and the human resource officer, under the ruling, that record cannot be released, though Hellberg noted that the secretary of the Senate could still decide otherwise if it was deemed to be of public interest.

Hellberg said that in any complaint involving a lawmaker, the lawmaker in question is going to receive some sort of written document pertaining to the complaint, which would be subject to public disclosure under the law.

The Senate already had a practice of publicly releasing entire reports on investigations of senators for workplace misconduct or sexual harassment for years before the ruling, but the House does not.

Chief Clerk of the House Bernard Dean has said that the House’s policy on releasing full reports is still to be determined, and that any change would need come from the Executive Rules Committee, which is made up of three Democratic leaders — including new Speaker of the House Laurie Jinkins — and two Republican leaders. The committee, whose meetings are usually held by phone or email, has not yet responded to a request from the Capitol Correspondents Association that they open up their process in a similar way to the Senate.

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