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Does Seattle need a harassment watchdog? These employees say yes

Seattle Silence Breakers unveiled postcards and banners Thursday, May 31 2018, that read 'Mayor Durkan, Stop All harassment & Discrimination now!'
Kathleen Merrigan/Seattle Silence Breakers
Seattle Silence Breakers unveiled postcards and banners Thursday, May 31 2018, that read 'Mayor Durkan, Stop All harassment & Discrimination now!'

Spurred on by a group of anti-harassment activists, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan says she will consider hiring an ombudsperson to handle discrimination and sexual harassment complaints by city staff.

The group of employees, the Seattle Silence Breakers, has been demanding that Durkan hire an ombudsperson, among other requests. On Thursday, the group unveiled banners in Seattle City Hall and in Durkan’s office. 

The message: “Mayor Durkan, Stop All harassment & Discrimination now!”

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Seattle Silence Breakers is made up of women and men who work for the city, many of whom say they've faced sexual or racial harassment and that their cases were never resolved. Silence Breakers co-chair Denise Krownbell, who works for Seattle City Light, says the group first asked Durkan to hire an ombudsperson to handle harassment claims in April. The idea was that this independent watchdog would review all complaints and grievances over the past five years.

"We're just trying to put some additional pressure on," Krownbell said. "I know the mayor has lots of things on her plate, and lots of things going on, and we want to keep bringing this forward."

Mayor Durkan met with the group Thursday, telling them “I can’t overnight put in an ombudsman, but I will give it deep thought. And I do have a sense of urgency. We have to have a sense of urgency.“

Seattle Silence Breakers says it sees the meeting with the mayor as a step forward. But group members feel a sense of urgency, too. Krownbell says there are people suffering daily by going to work with people who have harassed or discriminated against them. She says some people who have filed complaints are facing backlash from supervisors.

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The group also wants the city's Office of Civil Rights to be independent from the Mayor's Office, so that no mayor can influence civil rights enforcement.

Durkan has committed to requiring all city staff take anti-harassment training, and has ordered a review of the city's harassment policies and practices.

In the meeting with Silence Breakers this week, Durkan told them she’ll have the city’s newly formed anti-harassment team review their requests.

Durkan also apologized to the Silence Breakers.

"And for those who are hurt and suffering, I can say to you, I am sorry, personally," Durkan said. "No one should have to go to work and feel like they won’t be safe... And I want people to feel fully empowered, that’s our best self as a City."