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Six months after Hawaii House Speaker Scott Saiki pledged to revamp the chamber’s sexual harassment policy, he sent a letter last week to House members and staff asking for feedback on the existing rules.
The speaker announced the three members of the House working group reviewing the policy on May 9 and estimates they met about three times since then. He expects to get draft recommendations by the general election and have a final plan by the time the Legislature opens in January.
Ashley Lukens, a lobbyist at the statehouse, questions why it took so long for the House to solicit input and why lobbyists like her weren’t asked to contribute.
“I feel like they’re treating this like it’s not important. That to me is the overarching message that we’re getting both in the delay, in the lack of transparency,” Lukens said.
Saiki, a Democrat representing urban Honolulu says he didn’t solicit feedback on the existing policy earlier because the group’s members are volunteers.
“They needed some time to organize themselves and to review the current policy to get a sense of what areas they could focus on,” Saiki explains.
Lukens says she was sexually harassed while lobbying in the state Senate but that she didn’t feel like she had a recourse for reporting her experience. She hopes there will be an opportunity for people like her who do business at the Legislature to weigh in on new rules.
More bluntly: “Here we are at a publicly funded institution with our elected officials and we’re being told that we can’t weigh in,” she says.
The House’s sexual harassment policy came under fire earlier this year when former Democratic Speaker Joseph Souki from Maui admitted that he “touched and kissed more than one woman in ways that were inappropriate and unwelcome” and made inappropriate sexual comments.
The sexual harassment policy in the House doesn’t explicitly apply to lobbyists or others who do business at the Capitol. Moreover, the policy puts the speaker in charge of all complaints, even if he or she is the alleged perpetrator.
Souki’s resignation is the only example of a politician in Hawaii losing his job over sexual harassment allegations since the #MeToo movement started in October 2017. While politicians, business moguls and celebrities have been implicated nationally, Hawaii leaders have publicly been relatively unaffected by the movement.
The spotlight on sexual harassment has spurred legislatures nationwide to commit to overhauling their policies. An Associated Press analysis found that as of August, about half the state legislative chambers had done so. Hawaii’s Legislature is part of the other half that still haven’t, although both chambers have promised to review their procedures.
Saiki says he plans to ask House leadership to review the new rules before they’re put to a vote next year. He added that he has asked the working group to pay attention to the reporting process, who the policy covers and how complaints are handled.
Khara Jabola-Carolus, executive director at the Hawaii State Commission on the Status of Women, says that she’s encouraged that the House working group includes Robin Wurtzel, chief counsel at the Hawaii Civil Rights Commission. The other members include Janna Nakagawa, executive vice president at Hawaii Medical Services Association, and Ryan Sanada, director of legal and government affairs at Hawaii Employers Council.
The House’s process for revamping its policy appears to involve broader input thus far than the Senate’s parallel efforts.
Instead of appointing a working group, Senate President Ronald Kouchi from Kauai says he asked local attorney Sarah Wang to review the policy and make recommendations.
The Senate’s sexual harassment policy is much better than the House’s and was even lauded by the National Conference of State Legislatures as a model. But Kouchi says he wants to be sure that the policy is clear on how complaints against the Senate president should be handled. Right now the policy says that allegations should be reported to the president or his designee.
Kouchi says he expects to see draft recommendations next month and will discuss them in caucus — a private meeting of the Democratic majority — before voting on them in January.
What’s striking to some observers is how little they’ve heard about what’s happening with either chamber’s process.
“It would show how sincere members are in making substantive changes if this were a transparent, inclusive, comprehensive process,” says former Department of Human Services director Rachael Wong, one of several women who filed complaints against Souki. Wong says without more information, “We can’t determine whether this has been taken seriously.”
Jabola-Carolus said she’s surprised that the Commission on the Status of Women has not been contacted by either the House or the Senate to weigh in.
The commission has conducted about a dozen “#MeToo Prevention” trainings at government offices and nonprofits this year. Both the House and Senate have internal trainings but Jabola-Carolus says the commission’s training is less traditional and more in-depth.
“I think that people are still struggling with understanding what’s going on because it’s so uncomfortable,” Jabola-Carolus says, adding that it’s important training goes beyond “how not to get sued” and sheds light on how workplaces can be hostile environments for women.
Sen. Laura Thielen, who represents Windward Oahu, says that she’s looking forward to seeing the draft recommendations and hopes they include multiple avenues of reporting and that the policies are posted publicly at the Capitol. She also thinks it’s important that the House and Senate can come together and make their policies consistent.
“The people who may be victims of discrimination don’t see a difference between the fourth floor and the second floor,” Thielen says.
While sexual misconduct hasn’t been in the local news lately, recent congressional hearings on Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh have highlighted the significance and complexity of the problem.
“It’s really easy for us to be vocal against this nomination at the Supreme Court level but we don’t see the same bravery in our own lives,” says Jabola-Carolus.
To Lukens, the hearings underscored how there’s a new generation who are “completely indignant at the idea that these old men can harass us when we go to work.”
“The Legislature is either going to update its policies to reflect that or they’re going to continue to run into highly public complaints by women who have the audacity to believe that we have the right to be treated fairly,” says Lukens.
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