After Two Years And $200,000, Council Still Has No Sexual Harassment Policy Audit

A group of City Council members and candidates want to bring renewed focus to the Council’s stalled efforts to address sexual harassment, at the same time more women continue to come forward to accuse Governor Andrew Cuomo of sexual misconduct, calling it an issue of transparency.

More than a year and half since City Council Speaker Corey Johnson said he was committed to taking steps to address complaints of a toxic work environment for Council staff, a key audit that was supposed to identify what policies were working — and which ones were not — has yet to be made public.

“It is a good thing that we surveyed staff on our policies regarding sexual misconduct and sexual harassment,” said Councilmember Jimmy Van Bramer who led a virtual press conference on Tuesday,“ but if we do nothing with those findings, we have actually sent a horrific message to the staff, that we actually pretended to listen.”

According to the City Comptroller’s office, the Council hired Redwood Enterprises to conduct the audit in May 2019, estimating the audit would cost $198,420, including the cost of travel for the Washington, D.C. based firm. Through April 2020, the city has paid $189,860, but no report has been made public and there’s no estimate for when that might happen.

In a statement, Johnson said the Council has worked hard to update its sexual harassment policies and was committed to doing more.

“The firm we contracted to help update and improve our anti-sexual harassment policies is in the process of a thorough and independent review, which has been delayed due to the challenges posed by the COVID pandemic,” Johnson said, adding he was disappointed at the delay and had a “sense of urgency” that it should be completed as soon as possible.

He declined to answer follow-up questions including whether the audit was actually finished, when it would be released, whether there would be public hearings on its findings and what message it sent staff given the sexual harassment complaints coming out of Albany.

“It shouldn’t take another abuser for us to be like, ‘oh what’s going on with our own investigation?’” Shahana Hanif told Gothamist/WNYC. She worked as a director of organizing and community engagement for Council member Brad Lander from 2017 until the start of 2021. She’s currently a candidate for Council District 39, Lander’s district.
“This current City Council cohort should be prioritizing these demands and these changes,” she added, saying she’s disappointed in sitting Council members who have not done more to ensure this report was produced and made public.

While the issue is ostensibly one of transparency, ensuring city taxpayers know how the Council is spending their money to root out abuse, it was also a well-timed political maneuver as candidates for municipal office seek to break through the constant drip of news coming out about the governor.

Van Bramer is running for Queens Borough President and Lander is running for Comptroller against Johnson, who made a late entrance to the field.

“We know that harassment, toxic workplace culture, abuse of power, opaque reporting systems and compromised investigations aren’t unique to Albany,” Lander said. “We saw that here in New York City two years ago in the case of the serial harassment committed by Andy King,” he added.

Lander was among the members to vote against the Bronx member’s expulsion in 2019 after the Council’s Standards and Ethics sexual harassment investigation. Lander said he regretted that decision. Lander joined with 47 other members to vote King out a year later.

Council staff began to publicly raise concerns about workplace standards more than two years ago, leading to a push for unionization among the employees. They also secured commitments from the Speaker’s office to improve the culture and employment policies, particularly in terms of harassment.

“I know we are not perfect, I know we can do better,” Johnson said at the time, acknowledging the concerns raised in an open letter addressed to him and the body. He said he was personally committed to making staff feel valued, citing changes he had taken as Speaker, including improved pay and expanded maternity and paternity leave.

But current staffers say not enough has been done to improve working conditions within the legislative body.

“Harassment and abuse exists at all levels of government, unfortunately,” said Elizabeth Adams, a current Council staffer and a candidate for the 33rd City Council district, who added the culture of bullying and abuse extends to local government. “We start a culture change by cleaning our own house,” she added, stressing that’s their ultimate goal.