Roaring Fork Valley governments, agencies put focus on sexual harassment issues | AspenTimes.com

Roaring Fork Valley governments, agencies put focus on sexual harassment issues

Aspen Times staff
Special report

Some governments and agencies in Roaring Fork Valley are re-examining their policies on sexual harassment.

As the #MeToo movement gains strength and women feel more empowered to speak out against sexual harassment in the workplace, many companies, agencies and governments are reviewing their policies.

In an effort to find the level of complaints in the Roaring Fork Valley's governments and agencies, The Aspen Times sent Colorado Open Records Act requests to eight area governments and agencies, including the school district and the bus authority.

The Times requested the number of complaints, severity and end result in the 10-year period from Dec. 15, 2007, to Dec. 15, 2017. The request sought the number of internal employee complaints or records of sexual harassment, sexual misconduct, sexual assault and sexual impropriety. Detailed information about sexual-harassment complaints within government agencies, because they are personnel issues, typically isn't available for public consumption unless they escalate to a lawsuit and, in some instances, a termination.

Of the eight local agencies, five had at least one complaint in the 10-year period. There were a total of 12 complaints among the five entities and at least half of the complaints were substantiated; some governments would not release any information beyond the number of complaints received.

The Roaring Fork Transportation Authority reported six sexual-harassment complaints, and one led to an employee being fired.

Among the government agencies, Snowmass Village received three complaints in those 10 years, but officials would not release any information beyond that.

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"These cases are dealt with through our personnel policies and procedures outlined in our employee handbook," Snowmass Village Town Manager Clint Kinney's said.

Below is a summary of the eight groups and results of the CORA requests.

Aspen School District

The Aspen School District reported a single internal complaint of sexual harassment/misconduct made against an employee during the time of the open-records request.

The complaint, according to school officials, was investigated by a third-party official and substantiated.

Superintendent John Maloy serves as the compliance officer for the district — unless the complaint is based on a disability — and in that role is responsible for handing down disciplinary actions.

Maloy would not discuss the level of discipline taken against the employee found responsible for sexual misconduct.

"The findings and discipline related to the findings are a personnel matter," the superintendent said in an email to The Aspen Times. "I'm sorry, but I cannot share any information related to the disciplinary action."

The district had 143 teachers in the 2016-17 school year, according to the Colorado Department of Education.

Aspen Valley Hospital

Officials at the publicly supported Aspen Valley Hospital said that during the time frame under the open records request, one employee made a report of sexual harassment that ultimately was not proven.

"We did investigate it, and it was not substantiated," said Elaine Gerson, the hospital's chief transformation officer and its in-house legal counsel. "But neither of those employees are currently employed, but they weren't let go for any of those reasons (associated with the alleged sexual harassment)."

The hospital has an external hotline for employees to lodge a complaint. Those complaints are then forwarded to the hospital's compliance officer who will review them before taking them up the ladder, Gerson said.

"The employees can call anonymously," she said.

Gerson added, "If they're complaints of sexual harassment or a hostile work environment or sexual assault, any of those types of complaints, our human resources department, depending on the severity, would contact me as a lawyer, and we would conduct an internal investigation."

The hospital has 340 full-time employees, according to CEO David Ressler. It is publicly supported through a voter-approved mill-levy tax and has a board of five publicly elected directors.

City of Aspen

The city of Aspen, which currently has 293 full-time employees, said no complaints of sexual misconduct or harassment were levied during the time frame of the CORA request. There also were no disciplinary actions, suspensions or firings over sexual harassment claims within the city during that time frame.

City Attorney Jim True said a few minor incidents did not rise to the level of launching an investigation, as well as reports that did not materialize from some staff members.

"We cannot identify any formal complaints" during the time period The Aspen Times asked for, he said.

The city's human resources director, Alissa Farrell, said she would always work with the city attorney if a complaint comes before her.

9th Judicial District

Jeff Cheney, district attorney for the 35-employee 9th Judicial District, which includes Garfield, Pitkin and Rio Blanco counties, said the office's employee handbook makes clear that such behavior is not tolerated. During the time period of the request, the DA's Office "received only one complaint which involved an isolated inappropriate comment," Cheney said.

The handbook directs any employee with a sexual-harassment complaint to report it to their supervisor, he said. If the supervisor is the subject of the complaint, the report can be made to the person above that supervisor, including Cheney himself.

Once the complaint is official, Cheney said he would appoint a person in the office — most likely one of the investigators — to conduct an investigation and report back. At that point, he said he would decide what to do, with possible punishment that could include termination.

However, in a recent Equal Employment Opportunity training session, Cheney said he realized the office's policy has a hole in the middle: What if the sexual harassment complaint is about him?

"I'm an elected official," Cheney said. "No one supervises me."

He said he's asked other DA offices in the state if they have a policy addressing that concern and plans to find a solution and craft a policy.

"I intend to address that," he said.

Beyond that, Cheney said he plans to have his staff attend yearly sexual-harassment training, and this year's is scheduled to occur in about six weeks.

"We have an obligation in this era to promote an environment of respect," Cheney said.

PITKIN County

Pitkin County, which had fielded no internal complaints of sexual misconduct by its employees during the CORA request time period, "strongly opposes sexual harassment and inappropriate sexual conduct," according to its Equal Employment Opportunity policies.

"The county believes that sexual harassment raises some issues that are unique in comparison to other forms of harassment and warrants separate emphasis," the policy states.

If an employee wants to report an incident of sexual harassment, the first option is to go to the county's human resources director, according to the policies. If that person is not available or the timing is critical or that person is the subject of the complaint, the complaint can be made to the county manager, county attorney, chief operations officer or the assistant county manager, the policies state.

"But I think what's most important for us is that we take (sexual-harassment) complaints seriously," Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock said. "We will investigate immediately and take corrective action. That's what's important at the end of the day."

It was important for the county, which has 298.5 full-time employees on its payroll this year, to forge a system that didn't force a complainant up the chain of command "because often the chain of command is the problem," he said.

"I think we've tried to address that in the reporting structure," he said.

The county's first step, however, is prevention, Peacock said.

"We don't want to get to the point where this is taking place and employees have to deal with this (behavior)," he said.

To that end, all new employees are made aware of the county's sexual-harassment policies when they are hired. In addition, the county provides regular training on the subject, Peacock said.

That training used to come up every three years, he said, but that recently changed to yearly.

"Especially given the current climate, we're making sure we're doing it every year," Peacock said. "I think (the current climate) is a good thing, frankly. These areas of concern are out in the open now."

Roaring Fork Transportation Authority

The Roaring Fork Transportation Authority received six sexual-harassment complaints during the time span of the CORA request, according to Linda Forgacs, director of human services.

She said four of those claims were substantiated and one resulted in termination.

RFTA Chief Executive Officer Dan Blankenship said the regional bus agency has an extensive sexual-harassment policy that is part of the broader personnel policy and has a system in place for investigating sexual-harassment claims.

Workers with a complaint can go to their supervisors, assuming the supervisor isn't the person they are complaining about, he said.

A worker with a complaint also has the option of taking a complaint about sexual harassment directly to the human resources department. Someone with human resources is stationed in each of the prime employment centers of RFTA.

"It's really kind of an open-door policy," Blankenship said.

RFTA's personnel policy spells out what constitutes sexual harassment and the types of communication that could be used to commit it. The agency reinforced the sexual-harassment policy since the topic has dominated the news in recent months.

"Last November, human resources issued a memorandum to all RFTA employees to remind them about RFTA's stance on harassment and that substantiated allegations of harassment would result in disciplinary action up to and including a termination," Forgacs wrote in an email.

Training on all forms of harassment is provided to new employees and in recurring sessions. Employment law attorneys are periodically brought in from the Employers Council, an organization that helps private, public and nonprofit entities on employment law. RFTA pays for and encourages employees to attend workshops, seminars and webinars on harassment topics.

"RFTA vigorously investigates complaints of sexual harassment to determine the nature and severity of alleged harassment, whether the complaints can be substantiated, and what the appropriate disposition is in each instance," Forgacs wrote.

"The circumstances regarding each complaint are unique and often require considerable judgment in terms of determining the severity of the harassment and the intentions of the accused," she continued. "Tremendous sensitivity is required in order to be fair to all of the parties involved. The outcome of RFTA's investigations, if complaints are substantiated, can range from counseling and training up to termination."

Town of Basalt

The town of Basalt said it had no reports of sexual harassment in the 10-year window of The Times' CORA request.

Town Manager Ryan Mahoney said a person wanting to make a complaint would be directed to Judi Tippetts, assistant town manager, who also handles many human resources duties. If a town employee didn't feel comfortable taking a complaint to Tippetts, they would come to him, Mahoney said.

The town would seek assistance from the Employers Council on investigations of complaints, said Mahoney, who became manager in June. He said he intends to look into additional training on sexual-harassment issues because awareness is expanding so rapidly.

"I think the culture is changing," he said.

Town of Snowmass Village

The town of Snowmass Village received three complaints involving allegations of sexual harassment from town employees during the time period, according to Kinney.

"We are unable to provide you any further information regarding these complaints," Kinney said, citing a clause from the Colorado Revised Statutes.

In a follow-up interview, Kinney said the municipality has "very formal policies in place."

The town hired its first human resources director, Kathy Fry, in February 2017.

Prior to Fry's hiring, the town's protocol for filing sexual complaints was to report them to town finance director Marianne Rakowski, Kinney said.

"All (human resources) responsibilities fell to (Rakowski's) department" before February 2017, he said.

While the town has its formal policies in place, Kinney said, "the gist is (employees) can talk to anybody they want" about issues involving sexual complaints. He said if the issue is their supervisor, then they can go to the supervisor's supervisor, human resources or Kinney.

"My door is always open," he said.

Staff writers Jason Auslander, Rick Carroll, Scott Condon, Erica Robbie and Carolyn Sackariason contributed to this report.