City Hall’s new sexual harassment phone line won’t name names, but will find patterns

Staffers have told Controller Rebecca Rhynhart the new line is a “welcome” step forward.

City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart announced an audit of Philly's sexual harassment reporting system in March.

City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart announced an audit of Philly's sexual harassment reporting system in March.

Rebecca Rhynhart's office

Updated 1:15 p.m.

The only way employees of the City of Philadelphia can officially report harassment is in writing. Under the current system, it’s impossible to remain anonymous, since the letter required to register complaint needs a formal signature.

City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart realized that if you really want people to feel free to discuss misconduct, confidentiality is key.

Which is why opening a new phone line for municipal workers to discuss past reporting experiences was the first step her office took in a wide-ranging performance audit of the city’s sexual harassment policy and procedures. In the few weeks the line been up and running, the effort has already been hailed as a welcome step in the right direction.

“I’ve been told by several employees,” Rhynhart said, “just how welcome it is to have a direct line.”

The phone line, which is being handled by two lawyers, is open for calls at all hours of the week. Information gleaned from the calls will be used to identify any shortcomings — without the release of any current or former staff members names.

However, the Controller’s Office will be looking for patterns.

As part of the audit, all city departments were asked to provide details on their policy and reporting procedures, plus any sexual harassment complaints over the last five years.

That info will be compared to the data gathered through the phone line, and will let Rhynhart’s staff see if employees are calling in from specific departments, how many employees have called and if their reporting experience matches information from departments.

The comparison is a way to “identify holes and areas of improvement” in the reporting process, Rhynhart said.

Examples of possible gaps include:

  • Whether city employees know the policy or who they’re supposed to report incidents to?
  • What is the follow up with the employee who reports harassment after the incident is reported?
  • What constitutes a formal complaint?

In addition to looking at the reporting process, the full audit, which was announced in late January, will also review past city payouts and policies surrounding sexual harassment training.

There has never been an audit like this in Philadelphia government before, Rhynhart said, but after reports of misconduct came out last year — including the “really rampant culture of sexual harassment” at the PPA  — she felt an urgency to undertake the project.

The controversial handling of two sexual harassment complaints against former PPA Executive Director Vince Fenerty was revealed in December after an investigation by the Pa. Auditor General.

Then there was the $1.25 million settlement due to a lawsuit by a former female police officer, which claimed PPD Chief Inspector Carl Holmes had allegedly sexually assaulted her, per PMN. And then came sexual harassment allegations against Philadelphia Sheriff Jewell Williams.

“Two women came forward to claim sexual harassment by the sheriff and nothing’s happened. There hasn’t been a detailed [external] investigation,” Rhynhart said.

The audit report is expected to be released sometime in May, and the phone line will be open through April, possibly longer if needed.

“It’s so important to get this right,” said Rhynhart, “and to have strong reporting and investigation procedures in place so that we have a safe workplace.”

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