SANTA FE – New Mexico lawmakers will embark on a 30-day legislative session today with a new anti-harassment policy in place that will – for the first time – require an outside expert to be involved in reviewing complaints against sitting legislators.
After more than two hours of debate, top-ranking lawmakers voted 15-0 on Monday in favor of adopting the new policy, which took effect immediately.
Renewed recent scrutiny of sexual misconduct in New Mexico and around the nation prompted the move to revise the policy, which was last updated in 2008.
“It will be a vast improvement over what we have now … and hopefully will lead to a culture of mutual respect,” said Senate Majority Whip Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, one of eight lawmakers tasked with recommending changes to the old policy.
Although there was no opposition to the new policy, several legislators questioned how it would work and whether individuals who experience sexual harassment in and around the Roundhouse would be any more willing to file complaints.
Rep. Jim Dines, R-Albuquerque, another member of the legislative working group, called the final product the result of lengthy discussions.
“Not everyone got what they wanted – maybe that makes it a good consensus,” he said during Monday’s meeting of the Legislative Council at the state Capitol.
Under the new policy, any sexual harassment complaint filed against a sitting legislator would be considered by three top-ranking legislators – including lawmakers from both political parties – and the outside expert. If any one of the four individuals thought the complaint merited further investigation within a five-day review period, it would be sent to an internal ethics panel for additional scrutiny.
The Legislative Council Service would likely pick the outside expert, and agency Director Raúl Burciaga said Monday that he would likely keep a list on file of several attorneys with experience in harassment and discrimination issues who might be available at any given time.
Complaints would not be made public unless the internal subcommittee, working with outside counsel, found probable cause to recommend disciplinary action.
Meanwhile, in addition to weighing changes to the Legislature’s harassment policy for the first time in a decade, New Mexico lawmakers also underwent mandatory sexual harassment training on Monday for the first time since 2004.
The training, conducted by Massachusetts-based attorney and consultant Ed Mitnick, went over appropriate and inappropriate interactions and scenarios.
Among other things, Mitnick cautioned lawmakers to refrain from telling edgy jokes, especially those with racial or sexual undertones.
“If you can run a state, you should know the boundaries of appropriate personal behavior,” he said.
The training featured some lighthearted moments, such as when Sen. William Sharer, R-Farmington, who has Scottish ancestry, asked about comments he might receive when he wears a kilt to the Capitol.
The serious issue of sexual harassment at the Roundhouse came under renewed scrutiny last fall, after a slew of sexual misconduct allegations levied against politicians, media figures and entertainment executives sparked a national movement.
Locally, female lobbyists and legislators have described the Roundhouse as a minefield of inappropriate comments, unwanted touching, leering looks and sexual propositions.
Among other claims, longtime Roundhouse lobbyist Vanessa Alarid recently went public with claims that former state Rep. Thomas Garcia, D-Ocate, wanted sex in exchange for a “yes” vote on a high-profile 2009 bill she was lobbying for.
Garcia has denied the allegations.
The 30-day session begins today at noon. Gov. Susana Martinez will deliver her final State of the State address shortly after the session opens.