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Holden Case Sparks Reform Effort : City Hall: Two councilwomen say rigorous procedures are needed to avoid costly sexual harassment lawsuits.

November 29, 1995|JODI WILGOREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

One day after Los Angeles City Councilman Nate Holden was cleared of sexually harassing a receptionist, two of his colleagues announced plans to tighten procedures for reporting misconduct by elected officials and top managers.

Ruth Galanter and Jackie Goldberg, two of the council's four female members, refused to talk specifically about the Holden case. But they said that current city policy offers no administrative remedy for people claiming that they have been sexually harassed by top officials. Costly lawsuits such as the one against Holden could have been avoided if the city had better investigation and discipline procedures, they said.

"These kinds of situations should never have to go to the lengths that they have gone to," Galanter said of the high-profile Holden case and another recent scandal, in which City Clerk Elias Martinez was accused of sexual harassment and fired, then cleared and reinstated.

"We hope [sexual harassment] never happens," said Goldberg, who chairs the council's Personnel Committee. "But you and I know it's going to happen some time in the future, and boy, we're going to be prepared the next time out."

Galanter and Goldberg said they will look at similar policies in Congress and the Legislature, and consult sexual harassment experts in the private sector before drafting their policy. They plan to introduce a motion on the topic at the council's next meeting and hope to have the new rules ready by January.

Moments after they unveiled the proposal, Holden held his own news conference to celebrate his legal victory, declaring his staff members to be the true victims of the high-profile case and comparing himself to Emmett Till, a black Chicago youth who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955 for whistling at a storekeeper's white wife.

"I feel like there's been a noose around my neck for three years," Holden said. The councilman reiterated his accusation that the complaints were orchestrated by his political enemies and said he thought that the attack was harsher because he is African American.

A judge Monday exonerated Holden after a six-week trial in which former receptionist Marlee M. Beyda accused him of trying to force her into intercourse during a series of after-hours visits to Holden's Marina del Rey apartment. Holden faces a second civil trial in January on separate claims by another former worker that he and top staffers touched her and made sexual comments at work.

On Tuesday, the 66-year-old lawmaker said he would support Goldberg and Galanter's effort to tighten loopholes in the complaint policy if they exist.

"In my view, sexual harassment is a really bad thing. I don't tolerate it at all," Holden said as he stood surrounded by his son, his lawyers and about a dozen staff members, many of them women. "To me it's even worse than racial discrimination in the workplace."

A 1988 mayoral order prohibits sexual harassment in any city workplace, and designates counselors in each department and in the personnel department to handle complaints. But because elected officials have no supervisors, it is difficult to apply the policy.

"You can understand why they might be a little reluctant to take on an elected official or general manager if there's no particular procedure," Galanter said. "The city has a very clear policy that says sexual harassment is bad, we don't want it here, we won't have it here. But there are no clear sanctions for elected officials."

Goldberg added, "The most important thing is to have a harassment-free environment. The purpose is not punitive. The purpose is to change behavior."

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