On Thursday at Lula City Hall – where Councilman Gene Bramlett was accused of making an inappropriate comment and unwanted physical contact with a female employee in October, elected officials spent about an hour-and-a-half receiving lessons on various forms of harassment and proper behavior.
Lula City Council and the mayor had been advised to undergo sexual harassment training after an employee’s complaint of sexual harassment against Bramlett led to a $3,500 investigation paid for by the city.
Thursday’s training sessions, hosted by Member Services Consultants Pete Pyrzenski and Artiffany Stanley with the Georgia Municipal Association, cost the City of Lula an additional $700.
Bramlett has denied the accusations against him, and no further action was recommended or taken following the investigation.
“You need to know what activities you cannot engage in…when it comes to harassment…if you don’t know how to handle it, it becomes a disruption,” Pyrzenski said, instructing council to reread and fully understand current city policies on sexual harassment.
“Sometimes, policy is not enough, sometimes we have to reiterate that…verbally, you could be causing a hostile work environment and not even know it,” he said. “...as elected officials, you’re leading the way. If you have good policies…if you notice these little things, you become good officials, and that’s why you’re here.”
Following Pyrzenski’s remarks, Stanley reemphasized the gravity of understanding policy and the law, stating, “Just knowing the laws have changed and expanded throughout the years…lack of knowledge is no longer a defense for employers. Employers must be proactive in preventing that harassment, discovering it and remedying it. You also come up with corrective actions that may need to occur.”
When the two GMA instructors asked council members to name examples of a subtle instances of sexual harassment, Mayor Joe Thomas answered “leering,” which he described as “stripping (someone) with the eyeballs or something like that.”
At one point, Thomas took on a more trivial tone when posed with a hypothetical scenario of a female coworker bringing a male a bouquet of flowers on a regular basis – to which the mayor responded, “If she’s good-looking, yeah, if she’s ugly – oh, no.”
The statement wasn’t addressed by GMA’s representatives or others on council.
Beyond questions of the more subtle, verbal forms of harassment, the GMA consultants also addressed uninvited physical contact in the workplace. The investigation into the complaint against Bramlett stated video footage of the councilman engaging in similar physical contact with an employee had been captured in the council chamber.
Bramlett told The Times after the seminar that the lessons were beneficial to him and to council as a whole.
“I think a lot of people learned a lot of stuff," Bramlett said.
Both Pyrzenski and Stanley noted during the class that action which leads to discomfort could qualify as harassment in many cases.
“If they’re uncomfortable, guess what? You’ve created a physical environment now…physical becomes a problem,” Pyrzenski said. “...creating this atmosphere that’s uncomfortable.”
“You, as elected officials, are not above this policy,” said Stanley. “This pertains to everybody in an organization that could be affected negatively or positively.”
Before adjourning, Pyrzenski and Stanley urged council members to be wary of their positions as elected leaders of the city. They encouraged officials to take action and “say something” if they recognize a potential case of harassment or discrimination in the future.
“This is one of the key things for elected officials – training,” Pyrzenski said. “You learn and understand that…your role is important…you’re all in this together.”
“Ensure there is no recurrence or retaliation…retaliation is very important (to address),” Stanley said. “If the city manager comes up with a decision of what needs to happen, support that decision, respect that decision.”
“Employees are watching,” she added. “Employees care about where they work…they take cues from you.”
Thomas said he believes receiving the training will help to correct what’s been described as a toxic environment in City Hall.
“We did all the right things, and that’s why we’re here,” Thomas said. “It’s going to help.”
Councilman Chip Horst also called the classes productive.
“I think it’s good the city provides the training – not just for us, but for the employees as well,” Horst said. “...I actually caught some things that I didn’t know about, and I’ve been doing this kind of training since 1991 when I joined the military. There’s always new stuff to learn and that’s why this training should happen every year.”