Montana Lawmakers Look to Improve Legislature’s Culture

Legislature has a rule, mostly based on a state law, prohibiting harassment of lawmakers and legislative employees

By Associated Press

HELENA – Montana lawmakers are developing a new policy that would clarify how to report sexual harassment while also aiming to create a “culture of respect” among those who work for the Legislature and participate in the legislative process.

Susan Byorth Fox, executive director of the Legislative Services Division, said she and her staff are researching policies in other states as they put together a proposal for the Legislative Council to consider next month.

The Legislature has a rule, mostly based on a state law, prohibiting harassment of lawmakers and legislative employees. But training is not mandatory and it’s not clear who should investigate complaints or who should determine and enforce any penalties, legislative staffers have said.

Fox told lawmakers that there had been no formal complaints of sexual misconduct under the current rule and the state has had no financial settlements of complaints in the last decade.

“I think we’ve have a great track record if we don’t have any official complaints,” Senate President Scott Sales, Republican from Bozeman, said at a January meeting of the Legislative Council. “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.”

Rep. Jenny Eck, D-Helena, countered that female lawmakers may have a different perception “as to what the culture is in the Legislature.”

Fox said last week she has since heard discussion that “there is more of a discriminatory culture than I had been told.”

The National Conference of State Legislatures suggests the training should include examples of inappropriate behavior, because actions can be inappropriate without rising to the level of harassment, Fox said.

J.P. Pomnichowski, D-Bozeman, said people are dealing with more than just boorish behavior.

“I don’t think it’s fair to say that sexual harassment hasn’t happened,” said Pomnichowski, a member of the Legislative Council. “I think the problem is: What do you do with a claim? How do you resolve it when we are all bearing the title of legislator?”

“We hope to clarify the expectations of every legislator and if there are incidents,” how they can be reported, she said. The current policy calls for reporting complaints to the Senate president or the speaker of the House, which brings politics into the mix.

“Right now the process is ineffective and flawed and as a result, unused,” she said. “People are having to fend for themselves and that’s just not right.”

“What we’re after is a fair and equal workplace. That’s it,” Pomnichowski said.

Fox, along with her legal and human resources staff, plan to present a draft policy to a subcommittee of the Legislative Council, take their feedback into account and propose a policy to the full council at their meeting in Butte on May 23 and 24. She plans on recommending the training be mandatory.

The new policy and training curriculum will be in place before the Legislature meets again in 2019, Fox said.

The Legislative Council also will consider whether lobbyists should have to undergo similar training.

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