ANNAPOLIS — Leaders in the House and Senate are taking another step to address concerns about sexual misconduct in the State House and have created a new commission tasked with examining the issue.
The commission is the latest effort by the General Assembly to address concerns about inappropriate sexual behavior in the halls of state government. The announcement, made by House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., comes on the same day the Women Legislators of Maryland proposed an initial set of recommendations to combat the issue.
In a joint statement, the presiding officers lauded Maryland for what they said were some of the best policies in the nation regarding sexual misconduct. But some women legislators say more can be done and policies in place are not recognized best practices.
Maryland, like other states, has become a battleground over the issue in the wake of a national effort by women to speak out against pervasive sexual harassment in the workplace, manifested most prominently by the emergence of the #MeToo movement on social media.
In recent weeks, women lawmakers, staffers and lobbyists have privately expressed concerns about what they say is a culture of sexual harassment of women in the state capital. Some said that in many cases they avoid some male lawmakers to avoid problems.
“We have tried to stay ahead of the curve in implementing national best practices in the Maryland General Assembly to prevent harassment of any kind,” Busch said in the statement. “This esteemed panel will help us continue to push forward to make this the safest legislative workplace in the country.”
The 14-member panel, chaired by Jeanne Hitchcock, will examine workplace harassment policies of all three branches of state government and make recommendations to the Legislative Policy Committee. Two of the members were among those recommended by the General Assembly’s women’s caucus.
That committee, headed by Busch and Miller, updated the legislature’s policy in December to include changes to reporting and tracking of sexual harassment complaints. As part of the changes, complaints must go through the human resources department but can also be referred to the legislative ethics committee. Punishments can include expulsion.
Human resources officials will be required to provide a report annually to the legislature detailing the number and types of complaints it receives and investigates as well as the outcomes of those cases. The report, however, will keep the identity of alleged offenders secret.
The policy committee in December approved the changes in under six minutes without discussion or debate. Miller, at the time, called the effort “a watershed moment in time.”
Hitchcock, currently a special adviser to the vice president for local government, community and corporate affairs at Johns Hopkins University, previously held two Cabinet positions under Democratic former Gov. Martin O’Malley.
Members of the women’s caucus, led by Del. Ariana Kelly, D-Montgomery, have been meeting over the last several weeks working on their own recommendations.
Kelly said she is excited about the creation of a panel to examine the issue. Still, she said, the women’s caucus will move forward with its work.
“Our process is not dependent on this commission this year,” she said. “We’ll be issuing recommendations to solve the problem.”
Miller, speaking to the full Senate Wednesday, said the new legislative commission is “not to supplant or anything what the women’s caucus might be doing. It’s going to work hand in hand with them.”
The caucus Wednesday morning approved the first broad strokes of recommendations it plans to make to Busch and Miller.
Included in the document were recommendations for expanding sexual harassment training. The plan also calls for the legislature to create and fund a position that would focus solely on sexual harassment issues.
Additionally, the caucus called for an expansion of the number of people who would be qualified to take harassment complaints, including members of the women’s and Republican and Legislative Black Caucuses.
The women’s caucus is expected to make additional recommendations over the coming weeks, including some that Kelly said will address concerns about a lack of accountability and transparency in the process.
Currently, most complaints are made to the chiefs of staff to Busch and Miller; the new rules approved in December now require all complaints to also be filtered to the human resources office.
Kelly and others said the current process needs to be tweaked.
“I think there are many people who are uncomfortable with the process and that the only way they can make a report is through the presiding officer’s chiefs of staff or through HR,” Kelly said.
Kelly said women lawmakers also will be looking at legislation during the current session that will address the issue.
“This is the year when we will really see some change,” said Kelly.