By Michael L. Jones
A few dozen people braved the cold weather to attend an anti-sexual harassment rally held outside City Hall before last night’s Metro Council meeting.
The “Me too. Rally To Reject Sexual Harassment In City Council” was organized to show the public’s displeasure for a Nov. 1 settlement that ended the removal trial of District 21 Councilman Dan Johnson and allowed him to keep his seat.
Johnson has admitted to groping Councilwoman Jessica Green while taking a group photo, making unwanted advances to a Greater Louisville Inc. employee during an economic development trip to Austin, Texas, and exposing his buttocks to Erin Hinson, a legislative assistant for Councilwoman Angela Leet.
Protester Mary Barnes said the agreement and later actions taken by council members to remove Johnson were embarrassing to Metro Louisville. She contrasted the action of Mayor Greg Fischer and council members to state leaders who quickly condemned former Kentucky Speaker of the House Jeff Hoover when he was accused of sexual harassment. Hoover resigned his speaker position, but not his seat, last weekend.
“I shook my head when I heard about the agreement,” Barnes said. “Where else but Louisville would sexual harasser keep his job? I don’t like Governor (Matt) Bevin, but he showed up Fischer with his actions. I am fed up with Johnson, the council, and the mayor.”
Although he has released a statement condemning sexual harassment, Mayor Greg Fischer has mostly stayed out of the Johnson controversy, describing it as a council issue.
Metro Council President David Yates has said the settlement with Johnson was necessary because of competing state statutes and the potential cost of litigation.
The agreement limits Johnson’ time in City Hall to 20 minutes before and after meetings, prohibits him from attending any ceremonial function outside of his district or running for re-election in 2018. If he violates these terms or has “any intentional or accidental exposure of his genitals or buttock,” a three-member panel can remove him from office without a trial or appeal.
Johnson is already facing charges that he violated the terms of his agreement less than a week after it was signed. Councilwoman Leet filed a complaint with Yates last week contending that Johnson violated the 20-minute rule by being in City Hall 28 minutes after the Council Court adjourned.
Johnson and his attorney, Thomas McAdam, argue the settlement only referred to council and committee meetings — not the Council Court — and there was no stipulation when its terms would begin.
Earlier this week, Councilman Bill Hollander also complained that Johnson violated the terms of the settlement during an interview with WDRB when he stated: “I still say I did nothing wrong, but actually some of those incidents happened just like they said they did. So if that’s the case, I guess I did something wrong. But I didn’t do it.”
Hollander claims these statements “directly contradict Councilman Johnson’s admissions of transgressions and wrongdoing sufficient to warrant his removal and his consent to removal for those actions, subject only to a stay under stringent conditions.”
Johnson and his attorney believe he has not broken the agreement. McAdam said the settlement expressly refers to Council and committee meetings, not the Council Court. The attorney also said Johnson has a First Amendment right to say whatever he wants on television.
Two members of the removal panel, Barbara Sexton Smith and Barbara Shanklin, met on Tuesday to discuss the complaints. The third member, Councilman Rick Blackwell, could not join them because he volunteered for the committee and was not appointed by the Charging Committee.
The Charging Committee met yesterday to officially appoint Blackwell to the panel, which will meet again on Monday to examine the complaints against Johnson.
“Me Too” rally co-organizer Hallie Kirk Dizdarevic believes the latest moves by the council are a response to the public outcry over the settlement.
Dizdarevic said she and many people she talked to on social media did not accept the reasoning behind the compromise. She pointed out that spending up to a $100,000 to fight sexual harassment is nothing compared to the millions the council regularly appropriates for sports complexes and other construction.
“When I heard they had voted on an agreement, I felt horrified and betrayed by the liberals and women on the council,” she explained. “As a survivor of sexual assault myself, I was literally shaking as I listened to the news. I went to social media and there were a lot of voices expressing the same things I was feeling.”
Green and Leet both expressed their dismay with the Johnson settlement immediately after it passed the Council Court 13-6. The two council members and Hinson were all on hand for the 30-minute “Me Too” rally Thursday night.
Green went around went around hugging protesters and thanking them for their support. She told the assembled crowd: “These last several months have been extremely hard. People want you to give up and go away. … Sexual harassment is never OK. The message that 13 of my colleagues sent last week was disappointing and a slap in the face to me and thousands of our citizens.”
This post has been updated to correct the second reference to Hoover.