February 18, 2019
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Anti-sexual harassment trainer won’t return after State House lobbyists fault program

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Senate Majority Leader Nate Libby, D-Lewiston, listens at his desk in the Maine Senate on Dec. 5, 2018.

A certified trainer hired by the Maine Legislature to lead mandatory sexual harassment training for lobbyists has been asked not to come back, following complaints about the accuracy and effectiveness of her presentation.

Three trainings for lobbyists, led by Karen Ryla from the Bangor-based Work Force Performance Solutions, have been offered so far this legislative session as part of a new requirement under LD 1842. It was passed into law last year, and aims, in part, to address the power imbalances between lobbyists and lawmakers that increase the chances of sexual harassment.

All lobbyists, legislators and their staff are now required to undergo training annually on how to recognize and appropriately respond to sexual harassment. Previously only legislators and staff were required to attend the training. The new law adds lobbyists to the mandate.

But several lobbyists who attended initial trainings told the Bangor Daily News in January that the sessions lacked nuance and guidance applicable to navigating the lobbyist-lawmaker relationship. A dozen lobbyists have agreed during the past month to be interviewed, including two who attended the most recent training. The BDN agreed not to name them because they feared negative professional repercussions.

After Ryla’s Thursday session, four lobbyists complained to Senate Majority Leader Nate Libby, D-Lewiston, while others took to social media. Libby said he heard from lobbyists that the training “was not tailored enough to the unique power dynamics and work relationships that exist inside the State House.”

Taryn Hallweaver, political director for the Maine People’s Alliance, tweeted that fellow lobbyists in the training had to interject “to make corrections, clarify when tone/stats seem off, and provide grounding examples” to counter the “over-the-top, statistical outlier examples that have been provided.”

“For many of us who experienced sexual harassment in the State House, [the training] was infuriating,” another female lobbyist said.

“I know some people think it’s better than nothing, but I disagree. There were legal and factual problems with the training,” she said. “Re-entrenching inappropriate behavior is a problem.”

Libby sponsored the mandatory training legislation last year after several women shared stories about being sexually harassed. After hearing from lobbyists last week, he chose to ask the Legislature’s Office of the Executive Director not to invite Ryla back for the final two sessions. Those will instead be led by Jackie Little, the Legislature’s human resources director.

“It became clear that our expectations for that training were not met,” so “I asked them to contact the trainer to let [her] know we weren’t going to be using [her] services anymore,” Libby said. In the future, “we might look more specifically to trainers who have history in working in public institutions like statehouses.”

At the State House, where several women have confirmed publicly and privately that they have been sexually harassed, though only two complaints have been formally filed during the past decade, Libby wants to assure people that he is not just after a superficial fix.

“I don’t want people to think we’re just ticking off a box and saying the Maine Legislature has solved the problem of sexual harassment,” Libby said. “This is an important step along the path to get better. It’s just been a little rocky.”

If you or someone you know needs resources or support related to sexual violence, contact the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault’s 24/7 hotline at 800-871-7741.

 



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