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The making of a sexual harassment policy

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Four members of the Charlotte City Council are in the process of drafting a code of conduct for the city's elected officials following the recently alleged sexual harassment of employees by Council member Warren Turner.

Presently, the city of Charlotte doesn't have a sexual harassment policy that would hold Council members or the mayor responsible for harassment. Though Turner, who has been on the City Council since 2003, didn't have an official complaint filed against him, allegations that he had acted inappropriately with city employees led to an investigation that found there was cause to say that Turner acted inappropriately.

But at the end of the city-funded investigation (which cost $35,000), Turner wasn't punished. Nor did the Council censure him. In a vote on the matter, which took place on May 3, the decision not to censure Turner passed with a six-to-three vote.

In two weeks though, if a council member does something unethical like sexual harassment, there will be consequences, according to Councilman Patrick Cannon, one of the members of the committee (along with Warren Cooksey, David Howard and Mayor Pro Tem Susan Burgess) drafting the conduct code.

"The aim of the committee is to come up with an overall policy that would be centered around ethics, and the sexual harassment portion would be a piece of that. The idea is to come up with something that is applicable for addressing a current governing body or a future governing body should anything of this nature occur," said Cannon. "The policy that I had drafted would allow the governing body to remove the person from his or her role and responsibilities, unlike what you have today which is nothing in way of a policy."

But in order for the policy to be approved, the state of North Carolina would have to sign off on it, Cannon said. "The question becomes: By state law, are we allowed to do that?" he said of removing someone who'd violated the policy. In the committee, however, Cannon said the "one-strike rule" has support.

"I don't think there's anyone who would have a problem with what I'm proposing -- because what it does is take the onus off the city manager who said that he isn't the boss of the City Council and it puts that in the lap of those of us that govern," he said.

Another issue in drafting the code is protecting the privacy of the complainant. Burgess told News 14 Carolina on May 6 that one of the sticking points of the policy is whether the elected official should be informed of a complaint against him or her.

Once the policy is written, the committee will take it to Mayor Anthony Foxx and the full Council for a vote. Cannon said the vote and discussion of the policy will take place in an open session.

Last month, Charlotte's National Organization for Women coordinator Cindy Thomson told Creative Loafing that the city's lack of a sexual harassment policy dealing with elected officials was surprising.

"This is a real wake-up call for all boards and anybody that has any sort of power over other people," she said. "There should be some sort of policy in place. They sign confidentiality policies on many boards, but not anything about sexual harassment."

Even though sexual harassment is a part of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Title VII Act, which protects workers from being discriminated on the job because of race, sex and religion, James Ryan, a spokesman for the agency, said the EEOC couldn't sue a city or county. "We cannot sue a city or county or local government entity, under most statutes. The big one is Title VII, the 1964 Civil Rights Act that covers most forms of discrimination. We can't sue a city government for that or for disability discrimination," said Ryan. "For sexual harassment, we can listen to a complaint, and we can investigate it. We can try to negotiate a settlement with the employer, but if it gets to the point where they won't budge and they need to sue them, we can't do it."

In a case of that nature, Ryan said it would be referred to the U.S. Department of Justice or a local civil rights group.

Charlotte, as of press time, is facing a lawsuit by the unidentified employees who made informal complaints against Turner. Cannon, who served on the City Council in the 1990s and rejoined the Council in 2009, said this is brand-new territory for the city.

"This has never happened in past years," Cannon said. "This is a situation where sometimes we often as a society react to something and then find that there wasn't anything -- like in this case -- to address it. Because it has never occurred before, it was probably always a thought that we wouldn't have to address something like this. And if we ever had to address something like this that there would be something out there applicable to the mayor and City Council. But much like what we have today in the form of Amber Alerts, there wouldn't be an Amber Alert Law had the situation not occurred with Amber."

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