Norwich aldermen want stronger sexual harassment training for employees, volunteers

Norwich — The Democratic City Council caucus is calling for an overhaul of the city’s sexual harassment policies, including elimination of nondisclosure agreements, expanded training and assuring compliance with new proposed state legislation.

The three aldermen released a statement Tuesday in response to news that Norwich Public Utilities paid $35,000 in 2016 to settle a sexual harassment complaint by an NPU employee against then utilities commission Chairman James Sullivan, a Democrat. The settlement included a confidentiality agreement.

“Sexual harassment in the workplace is unacceptable,” said the statement, signed by Aldermen Samuel Browning, Stephanie Burnham and Joseph DeLucia. “This is not a partisan or political issue, but an issue of right and wrong. How we deal with this matter is a reflection of our values as people and as a city. We pledge to prioritize the safety and security of the city's employees and its volunteers over the job safety and job security of those who would commit harassment or violence in any form.”

The aldermen are calling for Republican Mayor Peter Nystrom to call a meeting to discuss three specific issues: eliminate nondisclosure agreements in workplace harassment and violence cases, examine harassment policies and training, and enhance communication and collaboration among city departments and agencies.

They asked that the city's policies "be brought into alignment with" proposed state legislation. On Feb. 20, a group of state Senate Democrats unveiled the proposed “Time’s Up Act,” which calls for increased penalties for offenders and increased protection for sexual harassment victims.

The NPU employee filed a complaint with the state Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities on Sept. 16, 2015, alleging that Sullivan made sexually explicit comments and suggestions to her and threatened her job. Sullivan resigned three weeks later. The settlement was reached in spring 2016 but was never acted on either by the Board of Public Utilities or the City Council, which appoints utilities commissioners.

The Day obtained the settlement with the complainant’s name redacted after a Freedom of Information Act complaint. The Day separately received the employee’s original CHRO complaint, which was withdrawn following the settlement, through an FOI request to CHRO.

Nystrom said Tuesday he agreed with some of his colleagues' goals, but before scheduling a public meeting, he would prefer meeting with individual aldermen in private to “lay the groundwork” on the issues.

“My view is we need to be cautious in dealing with this issue,” Nystrom said. “There are people out there who have been harmed.”

Burnham said Tuesday that eliminating nondisclosure agreements, which also is part of the proposed state legislation, in no way would infringe on complainants' confidentiality.

“I envision the complainant always remaining anonymous, as they are the victim,” Burnham said. “It’s about having these conversations, that we are doing the best by our citizens and that they feel safe.”

City Human Resources Director Brigid Marks said the city’s current sexual harassment policy and training guidelines apply to city and NPU employees. New employees watch a sexual harassment prevention video, and state law requires sexual harassment training for supervisors within six months of the promotion or hire.

Training for all employees is done every five years, the next one to be scheduled for this year, Marks said. All new employees receive a copy of the policies.

Members of volunteer boards are required to take an online ethics training course but are not required to take sexual harassment prevention training. The policy states the city will “take all reasonable steps to prevent or eliminate sexual harassment by non-employees, including volunteers, customers, clients and suppliers.”

City Manager John Salomone said the council could require appointees to take sexual harassment training similar to the ethics training, which only a few commission members failed to take.

Marks said she started working last year with Norwich’s volunteer fire departments on a training program that includes video training in sexual harassment prevention, bullying and workplace violence. Fire department officers take supervisor sexual harassment prevention training. Marks said she has worked with East Great Plain, Taftville and Occum departments thus far, and will add Yantic and Laurel Hill departments.

The city’s harassment policy includes a provision on confidentiality for both complainants and accused “consistent with the city of Norwich legal obligations, and with the necessity to investigate allegations of misconduct and to take corrective action when this conduct has occurred.”

The Board of Education has a separate policy on sexual harassment prevention training and complaint procedures for school employees that also calls for confidentiality of all parties during the investigation. Superintendent Abby Dolliver said Tuesday that administrators last took the training course in August.

The school policy covers alleged actions by co-workers and supervisors but does not mention possible complaints against school board members.

School board members took the online ethics course, but also are not required to take sexual harassment training. Dolliver said a board orientation and training session will be held March 20, and sexual harassment training could be added to the agenda.

NPU General Manager John Bilda said all NPU managers are required to take the city’s sexual harassment training course when they are hired and again every five years.

“We are supportive of any efforts to strengthen the city’s anti-sexual harassment policies, procedures or training requirements for its employees or appointees,” Bilda said.

c.bessette@theday.com

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