JUNEAU, Alaska — Alaska lawmakers and staff will be required to take training to prevent sexual and other workplace harassment, as allegations of sexual misconduct against powerful men in entertainment, media and politics nationally has renewed focus on the issue.
Last week, Democratic state Rep. Dean Westlake said he will resign after he was accused of inappropriate behavior toward aides in the Legislature. Westlake apologized “for the pain I have caused.”
Currently required ethics training mentions discrimination laws but the issue has been discussed in more general terms because there is so much information to cover during ethics training, legislative ethics administrator Jerry Anderson said.
Much of the time typically has been spent on issues like conflicts of interest because that’s where most of the questions have been, he said.
Pam Varni, executive director of the Legislative Affairs Agency, said the training on harassment and discrimination prevention, scheduled to begin in January, will be a deeper dive into those issues.
Rep. Sam Kito III, who chairs the Legislative Council, said the Legislature’s human resources office is working with a company on a training program.
Kito, a Juneau Democrat, said this is happening on a parallel track with work by a subcommittee tasked with making recommendations for updating existing legislative policies on sexual and other workplace harassment.
Critics of the current policy, which addresses issues like reporting and dates back nearly 18 years, say it lacks clarity and leaves room for interpretation.
Former state Rep. Beth Kerttula, a Democrat who served as a minority leader in the Alaska House, said she is glad training to address harassment will be required.
“That’s going to help a lot. I really believe that. Once people understand it and understand there will be consequences, that should help,” she said.
Kerttula sees women being empowered — and what’s happening nationally as a watershed moment that she hopes will bring about positive change.
Sen. Anna MacKinnon, a Republican from Eagle River and co-chair of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, said during her time in the Legislature which has spanned a decade, she has heard colleagues use inappropriate or off-color language around her.
She said she would never classify the incidents as sexual harassment and said she addressed the issue directly with the individuals and the behavior changed immediately.
MacKinnon said she thinks the environment at the Capitol has improved during her time in office, which she attributes to a “new generation” coming in.
“I think that specifically the younger men that are coming in, they have been raised by women who have been out in the workforce and have, from my position, struggled for equality in the workplace,” she said. “And so those mothers have raised boys, young men and now men that are established and have been around more politically correct activities.”
Olivia Garrett is a former legislative aide who, in a letter to House Speaker Bryce Edgmon and House Majority Leader Chris Tuck, dated in March, complained about unwanted contact from Westlake.
Edgmon has said he spoke with Westlake but Garrett said no one followed up with her.
She went public several weeks ago, because, she said, “institutions like the Alaska Legislature don’t change without public pressure, and because constituents have the right to know about inappropriate behavior from public officials.”
She told The Associated Press in a recent interview conducted via email that mandatory trainings are a positive step but not the whole solution.
What’s missing, she said, “is a detailed process that clearly outlines all type of unacceptable behavior, timelines, potential consequences, victims’ rights, and confidentiality and safety for parties involved.”