Chicago aldermen agree to legislation combating sexual harassment

SHARE Chicago aldermen agree to legislation combating sexual harassment
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Mayoral hopeful Bill Daley has proposed shrinking the City Council, and now is backing a citywide referendum to let voters decide whether to draw a new map with 15 wards instead of the current 50. | Sun-Times

Sexual harassment allegations against Hollywood movie mogul Harvey Weinstein have prompted a “Me, Too” avalanche of allegations against men in acting, the media, the restaurant industry and politics.

On Wednesday, the “Me, Too” campaign spread to the legislative reaction to those scandals.

Aldermen agreed to hold themselves and Chicago’s three citywide elected officials accountable for sexual harassment on their staffs and gave victims of sexual harassment and bullying a new tool to protect themselves.

The quick action by the Finance Committee and the full Council on a pair of ordinances championed by Chairman Edward Burke (14th) came one day after the Illinois General Assembly rushed to take its own steps in response to a sexual harassment scandal triggered by a victim rights advocate’s allegations against State Sen. Ira Silverstein (D-Chicago), the husband of Ald. Debra Silverstein (50th).

After the council meeting, Mayor Rahm Emanuel said the decision to close a legal loophole that has allowed elected officials to escape responsibility for sexual harassment on their staffs is only the beginning.

“It’s clear post the election, Roger Ailes, O’Reilly, Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey that there also has to be a change in attitude — and not just for women, but for men,” the mayor said.

“There’s a lot more work that needs to be done to make sure there’s not a culture that gives a permission slip for a behavior…where women feel put upon and, because of a man’s position, they can’t speak up.”

The Illinois General Assembly has come under fire for allowing the job of legislative inspector general to remain vacant for two years, leaving 27 pending complaints to languish.

Unlike Springfield, the City Council has no such backlog. The Burke-sponsored legislation is aimed at keeping it that way.

The second ordinance has broader implications. It would create what Burke called a “quasi-criminal violation for individuals who feel they have been victims of bullying or sexual harassment.”

Rules Committee Chairman Michelle Harris (8th) was asked why the City Council even needed to act preemptively to inoculate itself from a sexual harassment scandal that doesn’t exist at City Hall. At least not publicly.

“There are no scandals here, but it’s just to keep people honest. That’s all,” Harris said Wednesday.

“I don’t think it’s a feel-good, me, too in light of what we see happening at all levels of the society. It’s just, we want to put the protections there. It’s not that anybody down here is probably doing anything that. It’s just to give people a protection.”

Harris smiled, then laughed when asked whether she has ever been the victim of sexual harassment since she became an alderman in 2006.

“Who would do that to me? No. We’re a nice family here. I like to think of us all as family. So, I doubt that my family would be sexually harassing me,” she said.

Earlier this week, Northwest Side Ald. Nick Sposato (38th) said the “Me, Too” legislation scared the heck out of him. He warned: “A false accusation could wreck someone’s career and life” and an alderman could get in trouble for being “nice” and “too touchy-feely.”

On Wednesday, Sposato voiced no such concerns. In fact, he made it clear he “100 percent supports” the ordinances that Burke claimed would make Chicago the nation’s first major city to approve such a strong anti-bullying ordinance.

“This isn’t something new to us. We’ve been in front of this issue — or at least I have and I’m sure all of my colleagues have and every commissioner in the city have been in front of this issue about sexual harassment.

“It’s something we talk about in our office frequently to make sure everybody understands what they can and can’t do. I just want to make a statement that this is something that’s been going on for a long time.”

Steve Berlin, executive director of the city’s Board of Ethics, has assured aldermen that sexual harassment investigations by the inspector general would be handled confidentially, then adjudicated by the Board of Ethics.

Still, Budget Committee Chairman Carrie Austin (34th) has wondered aloud what would happen “… if I’m an employer and I reprimand someone and their retaliation is saying I’m sexually harassing” them.

Austin also took issue with Inspector General Joe Ferguson doing the investigating.

Two years ago, Austin unleashed a profanity-laced tirade at Ferguson for what she called the “witch hunt” investigation that forced the resignation of her son.

At the time, Kenny Austin resigned from his $72,384-a-year city laborer’s job after an internal investigation concluded he crashed a city vehicle while driving on a suspended license, then had a co-worker cover for him to avoid taking a mandatory drug test.

Also on Wednesday, Ald. Marge Laurino (39th) introduced an ordinance making annual sexual harassment training mandatory for all municipal employees — including the mayor, city clerk, city treasurer and aldermen.

Laurino said she wants to “clarify any ‘gray areas’ as well as send a regular message to city personnel that this behavior will not be tolerated.”

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