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posted: 11/6/2017 2:00 AM

Castro: Time for Ethics Commission to get serious about sexual harassment in Springfield

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  • State Sen. Cristina Castro

    State Sen. Cristina Castro

 
By Cristina Castro
Guest columnist

Once again, the state legislature has allowed a problem to fester until it's a full-blown emergency and a public spectacle.

I'm referring, of course, to the sexual harassment claims coming out of the state Capitol and the daily confusion surrounding news that no one has been empowered to investigate ethics complaints for the past three years.

I've been a member of the Senate less than a year, but already I see a pattern in state government that until the word crisis is involved -- budget crisis, school funding crisis -- we're reluctant to solve the problem.

So let me help. Based on what I've learned so far about these complaints -- the public ones and the still-whispered ones -- and the lack of effort to establish a system for addressing claims long before now, Springfield is grappling with a decades-old moral crisis.

As the newest appointed member of the Illinois Legislative Ethics Commission -- essentially the internal affairs division of the legislative branch and its employees -- I'm eager to get to work. It's time for us to establish new, modern guidelines for how sexual harassment claims are handled at the Capitol. We've been remiss in this regard, and it's our obligation to do better on behalf of any future accusers and the accused.

Among the improvements for which I will advocate:

• Mandatory, yearly sexual harassment training for elected lawmakers and staff;

• Public posting of instructions for reporting sexual harassment, abuse and assault; and

• Establishing procedures and deadlines for filling future legislative inspector general vacancies and ensuring timely disposition of complaints.

Sexual harassment and gender bias are not new concepts. I would venture to say most women have experienced it at some point during their education or careers. I can recall several conversations in the workplace over the years that became inappropriate or raunchy, but I was comfortable enough to shut them down. Not everyone is able to do that, though. They rely on others to be their voice.

What's stunning about the situation in Springfield is that it apparently has been going on relatively unchecked for years because of the inherent power structure. It has to stop.

When I was sworn in as a state senator in January, I said I would stand up for the people of my district. That means standing up for every person who sets foot in the state Capitol, in my office and in the Senate chamber. They should feel welcome and safe, no matter if they are a constituent, an advocate, an employee or a lobbyist.

In Springfield, we've set strong ethical and accountability standards for those who work at the Capitol. We bar lawmakers from accepting gifts and doing political work on state time. Lobbyists are prohibited from serving on state boards to limit conflicts of interest. State workers are accountable for everything from their time cards to their office supplies.

Yet we don't have a proper system in place for reporting and investigating claims of sexual harassment.

That's why being appointed to the Legislative Ethics Commission is important to me. I want to be a voice for those who don't have one right now, and I want to make sure we hold people accountable when they need to be.

Illinois Sen. Cristina Castro is a Democrat from Elgin.

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