Traverse City News and Events

Legal Counsel Recommends Sexual Harassment Training For County Commissioners

Sept. 29, 2019

At the Grand Traverse County Commission board meeting scheduled for this Wednesday, Oct. 2, commissioners will receive legal counsel recommendation advising that sexual harassment training be required for all county commissioners. Both Deputy Civil Counsell Christopher Tholen and County Human Resources Director Donna Kinsey have submitted materials urging the adoption of such a policy.

The idea of mandated sexual harassment training for county officials was originally broached at a July 17 board meeting. At that meeting, Commissioner Betsy Coffia proposed adding a requirement to the board rules that would have compelled all board members to complete anti-harassment training “no later than September 30, 2019.” In addition, the rule would have required any future board members to complete an orientation session that included sexual harassment training within 45 days of taking office. County Prosecuting Attorney Noelle Moeggenberg advised that such a training requirement would minimize liability risks and help protect the county from potential lawsuits.

At the time, several board members pushed back against the proposal. Their objections ultimately led the board to table the proposal “until legal counsel can review it and make a recommendation.”

In a memo addressed to commissioners, Tholen discussed the legal benefits of a sexual harassment training policy. He wrote that, in most cases, a county can invoke “governmental immunity” if or when it is sued. Governmental immunity renders a government agency “immune from tort liability if the government agency is engaged in the exercise or discharge of a government function.”

“Governmental immunity is not a defense to all allegations, however,” Tholen wrote. “One situation where ‘governmental immunity’ does not provide protection for a governmental agency is when the allegation is regarding a violation of civil rights such as sexual harassment.” He concluded that, “given the unavailability of the defense of governmental immunity, it is even more important that sexual harassment training be utilized” for county employees – especially county commissioners, department heads, and others in “positions of authority.”

Tholen concluded that sexual harassment training for county officials “must include not only training on what sexual harassment looks like, but also the steps that are to be taken if sexual harassment is observed.” Such practices, he wrote, would enable “those wielding authority” to recognize and address problems with sexual harassment in a timely fashion, thus protecting the county from a potential civil rights lawsuit.

In a separate memo to county commissioners, dated September 27, Kinsey concurred with Tholen’s recommendations. “Standardized training ensures all employees, and elected officials are aware
of what behaviors are expected at work,” she wrote. “It's vital to clearly define acceptable behaviors as well as any consequences for stepping outside those boundaries.”

Commissioner Gordie LaPointe tells The Ticker, “My problem is and was not with taking or not taking the OMA or Sexual harassment training provided by the County. In fact I attended both County training sessions several months ago, which I believe may not be the case with one or more of the Commissioners that are most insistent on the need for Commissioners to take such training. My concern…was simply in response to the way in which the need for this training was presented by Commissioner Coffia…I have no issue with the training per se but I do take issue with the politics at play here,” adding that if commissioners proceed, he has “no intention of standing in the way of the majority.”

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