clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

John Florez: Ending sexual harassment requires leadership

Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker talks with media on Tuesday, March 24, 2015.
Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker talks with media on Tuesday, March 24, 2015.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

What did the mayor know and when did he know it? That’s what the city taxpayers will want to know about a pending alleged sexual harassment lawsuit against Salt Lake City.

In April 2013, a female former Salt Lake City police officer went to the police chief to inform him of alleged sexual harassment of three female police officers by their superior. In September 2013, the department’s Internal Affairs office started an investigation. Nine months later, the police chief agreed with the findings by Internal Affairs that determined the three female officers had been sexually harassed by their superior, but he believed it did not rise to the level of termination.

If complaints were filed with the city two years ago, when did the mayor become aware of them, and what did he do about it? Under the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the CEO has the responsibility of carrying out the law — what did he know or should have known? And what corrective action, if any, did he take?

Mayor Ralph Becker had not spoken out on the complaint until his press conference last week, where he said, “I take any claim of harassment and discrimination very seriously. As this situation unfolded, my administration addressed the issue with the police department and will continue to do so in close coordination with the Human Resources Department and the city attorney’s office to prevent this kind of behavior in the future. It’s simply unacceptable.”

It seems the three police officers alleging sexual harassment have waited patiently over the past two years for a resolution to their complaint. Sexual harassment occurs when there is a hostile and intimidating environment in the workplace. The remedy the female officers are asking is “to prompt policy change to give all officers, especially women, an avenue that they feel they can pursue safely without fear of retaliation or humiliation if they should ever need to make a claim of their own.”

The mayor is supposed to review the complaint when he first knows about it and take corrective action immediately. That’s what the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) would expect. The mayor could make a good-faith effort by disseminating the city’s commitment to a policy of nondiscrimination, by taking action that assures nondiscrimination, and having a monitoring and reporting system that assures equal opportunity in all conditions of city employment, including recruitment, selection, benefits, promotions and training programs.

This week the issue of gender discrimination against the city was raised during Becker's appointing of a new fire chief. The council was briefed by the city attorney, and the mayor’s office said he had reviewed the information provided at length with the city attorney's office and Human Resources and concluded “... the charges are simply unfounded.”

Has the mayor’s handling of these complaints created a “chilling environment” in the city’s workplace where employees are fearful of filing complaints and retaliation? Has he left the city vulnerable to a class-action complaint?

While Becker touts his commitment to equal opportunity, diversity and all the committees and commissions he has created, none looks to be effective in advising him of possible violations of civil rights.

The three police officers should be commended for their commitment in trying to make their police department free of discrimination, where all employees are able to contribute.

The mayor’s leadership in these matters seems lacking, and his rhetoric about commitment to civil rights doesn’t seem to match his actions.

Utah native John Florez served on the U.S. Senate Labor Committee and as Utah industrial commissioner. His White House appointments included deputy assistant secretary of labor and Commission on Hispanic Education member. Email: jdflorez@comcast.net