In the past two years, the light shone on the problem and pervasiveness of sexual harassment in the workplace hasn’t dimmed, but that light needs to continue shining. Eight months ago, an audit of the city’s sexual harassment policies and payouts released by City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart found that the city had a long way to go to insure that harassment claims were consistently, properly, and fairly handled. The city had so many inconsistencies from department to department in how complaints were handled that it was hard to get a true picture of the extent of harassment. The $2.2 million in payouts reported between 2012 and 2018 were not an accurate barometer either, since tracking payments was inconsistently handled by the law department.

The audit issued clear recommendations for the city to improve. So how are we doing, eight months later?

The city has cleaned up much of its act. For one, it has beefed up training. That dovetails with a ballot question city voters approved that requires city employees to receive training at least once every three years. That’s important because sexual harassment can often be a gray area, and behavior or actions someone considers innocuous can be anything but.

The city also created an online reporting tool to better standardize how complaints are registered. Since that tool, the city received 40 complaints between July and January of 2019, a significant number compared to the 121 documented cases in the six years between July 2012 and April 2018.

The controller says that’s not enough. Missing is an independent office that handles sexual harassment complaints exclusively; right now, the Employee Relations Unit in the Mayor’s Office of Labor Relations serves as a clearinghouse for complaints. Rhynhart contends that the problem with that setup is that the ERU is mainly charged with monitoring, although they do investigate. But they don’t investigate all claims and charges; sometimes they will kick an investigation back to the department where the complaint originated. That can discourage people from coming forward if there are reasons they don’t want their department handling a case.

An example of this was illustrated in the original audit when it was revealed how a substantiated claim against Sheriff Jewell Williams was handled. According to policy, the report on the investigation was sent to Williams as a department head; that meant he was expected to offer conclusions and recommendations on an investigation into his own behavior.

The arms-length buffer that would be provided by an independent office makes sense, particularly given the sensitive nature and potentially explosive dynamics of a sexual harassment claim. The controller also wants a schedule of discipline with guidelines for punishment for certain behaviors. The city contends that that’s hard to do over a range of many departments with their own policies and labor agreements. But clarifying consistent punishments also could help clarify just how little tolerance the city is willing to offer for behaviors that can be corrosive, damaging, and ultimately expensive. While there may be disagreements on policy and practice, the controller is right to keep the light shining on the debate.