Assembly warned on harassment Women's caucus, not consulted, vents annoyance

September 16, 1993|By John W. Frece | John W. Frece,Staff Writer

Seven months after a sexual harassment controversy ripped apart Maryland's General Assembly, the legislature's presiding officers yesterday put lawmakers on notice that sexually offensive behavior will be punished.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. and House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr. unilaterally issued an eight-page policy that defines sexual harassment and sets up procedures for reporting, investigating and resolving complaints.

But their action immediately was criticized by the new chair of the General Assembly's women's caucus, who said she was "shocked" that the two men had drafted and put into effect a sexual harassment policy without giving women legislators any advance warning or bothering to ask for their input.

"Even if this document was perfect, and we accepted it, you just don't do things this way," said Del. Betty Workman, D-Allegany, adding that it was discourteous to present women legislators with, in effect, a fait accompli.

The caucus held its own hearings on the topic earlier this year and fully expected to be consulted, Ms. Workman said.

Mr. Mitchell, a Kent County Democrat, could not be reached for comment last night, but Senator Miller, a Democrat from Prince George's, said they decided it was better to put a policy in place now and worry about modifications later.

Otherwise, he said, months would likely pass while legislators and other groups debated what the policy should say.

Mr. Miller acknowledged that the policy was drafted largely in response to the emotional and divisive confirmation hearings in February of former Baltimore County District Judge John S. Arnick.

Mr. Arnick, a veteran legislator who had expected easy confirmation, was instead bumped from the bench after he was accused of using vulgar and sexist language during a dinner meeting with two female lobbyists a year earlier.

'Firebrand in the night'

"The John Arnick incident made us all aware of what could be happening in Maryland," Mr. Miller said.

"It was a firebrand in the night that awakened Annapolis to a

situation that had been dormant, but was looming on the horizon," the senator said.

In a cover letter accompanying the policy -- which was mailed to every delegate and senator yesterday -- Mr. Miller and Mr. Mitchell noted that 28 other states already have such policies in effect.

"It is our responsibility for creating and maintaining a work environment in which all members and employees of the Maryland General Assembly are treated with respect and are free from sexual harassment," they said.

The policy, which was drafted by the staffs of the president and the speaker, applies to all 188 lawmakers and all legislative staff.

State Sen. Janice Piccinini, a Baltimore County Democrat who had called for a more extensive investigation of Mr. Arnick's behavior before any confirmation vote, said last night the policy was long overdue. She nevertheless commended the speaker and president for issuing it.

"There will be a lot of secretaries who will be very happy to hear this," Ms. Piccinini said, suggesting that clerical or other staff members are more often the subject of sexual harassment than are legislators themselves.

"Through the women's caucus, I have spoken to many of my colleagues and people who work in the General Assembly who feel [sexual harassment] definitely exists, but through fear they have never articulated it publicly," she said.

Harassment defined

The new policy defines sexual harassment as "any unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical contact of a sexual nature when:

* "Submission to such conduct is made either explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of an individual's employment;

* "Submission to or rejection of such conduct by an individual is used as a basis for employment decisions affecting such individual; or

* "Such conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual's work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile or offensive working environment."

The policy outlines how complaints should be filed and to whom, stipulates who will investigate complaints and what sorts of questions are likely to be asked, and describes how complaints could be resolved.

Discipline for persons found guilty of violating the policy could range from requiring an apology to suspension or even firing.

Counseling or training also could be ordered.

Senator Miller said the policy "absolutely" would have covered the Arnick incident.

The policy specifically states that any interaction between legislators or General Assembly employees "away from the legislative complex at legislative sponsored events, professional meetings or seminars, and those activities which involve legislative business" would be covered.

It also covers "sexually offensive or sexually harassing behavior by [legislators] and employees in the course of their work with such third parties as press persons, lobbyists, visitors, constituents, service persons, or state employees employed by other branches of government."

Avenue for complaints

The complaint section of the policy, however, does not appear to give anyone other than legislators or legislative employees an avenue in which to file a complaint.

Mr. Miller said that was not the intent, and if modifications are needed, he and Speaker Mitchell are willing to listen.

"The public should have a forum to go to to make their views known," he said.

He said, however, that a policy needed to be put in place "in case, God forbid, some other incident occurs.

"The issue has lingered since the matter was brought to a head through the Arnick proceedings, and it was felt we have to have a policy in effect now," he said.

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