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Culture change needed in Salem

A report delivered to the Oregon legislative leaders last week puts the Legislature on notice that changes are needed to protect lawmakers and staff from sexual harassment. The leadership should take the report’s findings seriously — especially its declaration that the Capitol culture must change or policy initiatives will not be effective.

Senate President Peter Courtney and House Speaker Tina Kotek asked the Oregon Law Commission last April to look into the Legislature’s harassment policies after allegations surfaced about Sen. Jeff Kruse, R-Roseburg, who was accused of groping women lawmakers. Kruse resigned in February.

The commission, housed at the University of Oregon School of Law, was created in 1997 to conduct a continuous program of law revision, reform and improvement. The commission created the Oregon State Capitol Workplace Harassment work group, which prepared the report presented Thursday.

In addition to the commission’s report, state Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian filed a complaint in August accusing Courtney and Kotek, in particular, of not doing enough to respond to the allegations against Kruse. The resulting investigation by the Bureau of Labor and Industries is still underway.

The commission’s report makes several recommendations, including creating an Equity Office that would operate independently of the Legislature but report to a joint bipartisan committee. Its two staff members would conduct investigations, write investigative reports and perform outreach and training.

Other recommendations include strengthening the definition of harassment, improve the process of reporting harassment and provide for temporary reassignment, no-contact orders and unpaid leave after an allegation is filed.

Lawmakers will consider those recommendations during the legislative session that starts next month.

While Courtney praised the commission’s work, he and Kotek have been less than forthcoming about the Legislature’s track record on harassment complaints. They initially refused to comply with a subpoena from Avakian for documents relating to sexual harassment complaints, citing concerns over the privacy of complainants. A court last month ordered them to turn over the records, and they released 20,000 pages of documents. The judge denied Avakian’s request for a contempt order and $1 million in fines.

What happens now will depend on the Legislature. Lawmakers should take the report’s conclusions to heart — especially the recommendation to change the culture of the Capitol. That will take more effort than enacting written policy changes.

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