For the last couple of weeks, Council member Teresa Mosqueda has been circulating a draft resolution “supporting a safe and responsive workplace” within the city government’s Legislative Department. It’s meant to set expectations not only for how Legislative Department employees treat other city employees and constituents, but also for how constituents should treat the department’s employees.
Before we get into the details of Mosqueda’s proposed resolution, let’s review the context for how we got here. There are two threads: the ongoing efforts to address workplace sexual harassment and intimidation, and the divisive vitriol that has subsumed our civic discourse recently.
Following the rise of the #MeToo movement and the Seattle Silence Breakers in 2017, Mayor Jenny Durkan appointed an inter-departmental team in January 2018 to look at issues of harassment within the city government. The task force published its recommendations in July 2018. Notably, it found that while the city’s anti-harassment policies met the minimum legal requirements, they were not “transformational;” it recommended that those policies be reviewed and revised.
At the same time, the City Council was drafting its own update to the city’s Human Rights Code, updating the definition of “discrimination” to include harassment. The Council passed that into law last May. And the legislative branch was simultaneously writing a policy for “workplace expectations” within the legislative branch, which was approved by Council President Harrell in late April of last year and is subject to annual review.
Last fall, as a follow-up to one of the inter-departmental team’s recommendations, Mayor Durkan signed an executive order updating the city’s harassment and discrimination policies and announced her proposal to create a new Office of the Employee Ombud to handle complaints of harassment, including sexual harassment, within the branches of city government. The Council approved the new department in December. Two weeks ago, Durkan announced that she is nominating Dr. Amarah Khan to be Director of the Office of the Employee Ombud, pending confirmation by the Council. According to the ordinance establishing the new office, Khan will need to deliver to the Mayor and the Council by the end of June her implementation plan for the OEO.
Finally, earlier this year the state Legislature passed its own Code of Conduct, addressing issues related to workplace behavior by legislative branch employees (including elected officials) in how they interact with colleagues and with others (including constituents).
Mosqueda’s proposed resolution has three sections:
- It sets expectation for Legislative Department employees, elected and appointed officials, and contractors will “conduct themselves with self-awareness, self-respect, and professionalism; treat all others with respect, dignity, and civility, regardless of status or position; and refrain from engaging in hostile, intimidating, offensive, or unlawful activities or behaviors that may amount to discrimination harassment, sexual harassment, or bullying.”
- It sets expectations for how Legislative Department members should be treated by constituents, saying they “should be treated with respect and should not be subjected to inappropriate or offensive language. The Council is also committed to protecting Legislative Department employees from unlawful harassment by members of the public.”
- It creates another working group, this one internal to the Legislative Department (which includes the City Clerk, the City Auditor, and the Hearing Examiner) to review the existing “workplace expectations” policy and recommend changes by September 1.
Section 1 is largely redundant with the existing, expansive “workplace expectations” policy. That policy is only a year old, so it’s unclear why a working group to review it is already needed. But the most controversial part of the resolution is likely to be Section 2, setting expectations on constituents for how they should treat the City Council members, their staff, and other employees of the legislative department.
It’s no secret that there has been plenty of animosity aimed at the Council by constituents lately. Beyond perpetual gadfly Alex Tsimerman, who shows up to nearly every Council meeting to accuse the Council members of being “f*cking Nazis with Gestapo principles” and anti-Semites, some of the more controversial legislative efforts of the past year — including the head tax, the budget, and the MHA “upzones” — have brought a lot of angry people to City Hall to speak their minds. And recently several Council members were caught on camera tuning out a citizen during public comment at a Council meeting, while Council member Juarez brusquely rushed him through his allotted two minutes. That resulted in a viral (though in part partisan-media-driven) backlash in which a new round of angry shouting ensued, both in person at Council meetings and in email and social media. And let’s not forget what happened three years ago when the Council voted down a street vacation for the SODO Arena, effectively killing the project.
This is a complicated space, to be sure. There is a long history of litigation as to what people are allowed to say during public comment sessions based on their First Amendment rights, and the City Council has adopted its own rules (see page 35). Further, we certainly expect our elected officials to be thick-skinned in hearing feedback from angry constituents. But there are other considerations in play as well.
First, the elected officials’ staff often are forced to take the abuse as well, even though they don’t make the decisions. The fact that we pay government employees’ salaries doesn’t give us the right to harass, intimidate, threaten, or otherwise verbally abuse them.
Second, in many cases it really does cross over into harassment and threats to elected officials. The First Amendment doesn’t give a constituent the right to threaten an official. But it’s worse, because the harassment and threats often extend to officials’ families and friends as well. An elected official’s young children didn’t ask to be a part of a contentious political system.
Third, stepping back from the threats and harassment, there’s an argument to be made that the civic discourse in City Hall should be “family friendly.” We want school groups to be able to sit in on Council meetings. We want parents to be able to take their kids to meetings in City Hall to see how their government works. I’m all for kids seeing angry people airing their grievances directly with their elected representatives — that is a great virtue of our form of government — but they shouldn’t have to hear a string of F-bombs while there.
Fourth, the need to withstand verbal abuse, harassment, and threats to oneself and one’s family is one more burden we place upon government employees at a time when it’s already difficult to get good, qualified people to run for elected office and to take civil service jobs.
This is all further complicated by the long, inglorious history of calls for civility in politics, which far too often have been attempts to silence dissent and grievances of the oppressed. Those in powerful positions, whether Trump on the right or Sawant on the left, get away with incivility, and in fact use it as a tool to rally their followers; those without power are dismissed from consideration not because their complaints aren’t genuine or their ideas are wrong, but simply because they chose to express themselves in language that makes the powerful uncomfortable. Calls for civility also have been used to mask racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination.
There is little disagreement about the need for dialing back the harassment and threats (though few good ideas about how to do that in the age of social media). But as this thoughtful text suggests, the key question up for debate here is, “who is allowed to be rude?” Mosqueda has her thoughts, as written in her draft resolution (though resolutions are not ordinances; they can define expectations and intents but not legally binding requirements). We will hear more from her, as well as her colleagues on the Council, when it comes up for discussion in her next committee meeting on April 18.
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