Denver’s elected officials could finally have sexual harassment rules soon

How do you punish someone who can’t be fired?

Snow day at the City and County Building, Dec. 21, 2017. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Snow day at the City and County Building, Dec. 21, 2017. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

(Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

staff photo

UPDATE: The City Council unanimously approved the resolution for these proposals during their meeting on Monday, August 6.

Months after Mayor Michael Hancock admitted to sending lascivious text messages to a city employee, Denver’s elected officials are ready to subject themselves for the first time to formal policies on sexual harassment.

This is a question that cities around the country have struggled with: It’s difficult to fire or discipline elected officials — so, how can they be held accountable?

Denver City Council members on Tuesday gave a preliminary approval to several new proposals. The central piece, a new “respectful workplace” policy, sets out definitions of discrimination, harassment, sexual harassment and retaliation. And it lays out the procedures for complaining about alleged harassment by council members and their staff.

“I think it was very unsatisfying to the public at large to learn, as we did, that there is no legal consequence to some people that find themselves accused or even guilty of harassment,” said Councilman Kevin Flynn. The city council considered investigating Hancock, but decided it couldn’t.

The new policy won’t apply to the mayor, but Hancock’s office is working on a similar sexual harassment policy, which could be published soon.

Under the council’s proposed policy, anyone who receives a relevant complaint must forward it to the city’s Office of Human Resources. If it “warrants investigation,” it goes on to a third-party investigator, who prepares a confidential report. The investigation is expected to take less than 45 days.

From there, the city human resources staff sends the report to all council members, along with recommendations about what happened and how to address it.

The options for discipline are limited, though. An offending council member is expected to “endeavor to comply” with any recommendations. But they can’t be fired or suspended.

However, the city council is preparing an interesting new way to punish its members: the censure. Under another proposal, the council would be able to vote to formally chastise each other with “censure resolutions.”

A censure would require 10 votes out of the 13 council members. It’s a “public admonition,” according to legislative counsel Kirsten Crawford, or a “public shaming,” as Flynn put it.

(The council’s staff members can still be fired or demoted.)

Councilwoman At-large Robin Kniech said she was satisfied with the results. “It might not be in the headlines right now, but it’s still as important as it was,” she said. “I just feel like we took it seriously and studiously.”

Flynn has suggested that the policy should be broader. He said at a previous meeting that the wants the rules embedded in the city’s ordinances, and that they should cover the mayor, clerk and auditor.

Much of the process in the new policies would remain confidential, but the city would annually report general statistics about the number of complaints and their outcomes.

The council will likely vote on the new policies at a meeting in the near future.