Staffers upset after council gives ‘slap on the wrist’ to member accused of harassment
When the City Council voted not to expel Andy King last week, only four of Brooklyn’s 13 councilmembers joined the minority chorus calling for the councilmember to be booted from the 51-person body.
In the days since the vote, numerous Brooklyn council staffers have expressed disappointment with its outcome — though none were surprised.
“It’s offensive. It’s a slap in the face,” said one woman who works for a Brooklyn councilmember. “Morally, everyone should have voted Councilmember King out.” She, along with the other staffers quoted in this article, were provided anonymity to speak freely on the subject.
King received a 30-day suspension from the council following substantiated allegations against him of retaliation, disorderly conduct, conflicts of interest and harassment of staff.
The vote on King’s suspension — called for by Queens Councilmember Jimmy Van Bramer — came as an amendment to the punishment handed down by the council’s ethics committee.
On top of the suspension, the Bronx councilmember was fined $15,000 and now has an independent monitor watching over his office — but the vote to expel him failed. Thirty-four councilmembers voted against, and only 12 voted in favor. Brooklyn’s Councilmember Matthieu Eugene abstained.
Last week, 93 current and 39 former council staffers signed onto a letter calling for changes to how the council handles allegations of councilmember mistreatment of staff.
“I was extremely disappointed and frustrated and I think to watch a political process play out over something that, to me, was about how we show we value employees and stand up for staffs’ rights was incredibly disheartening and upsetting,” said another woman who works for a Brooklyn councilmember who voted against expulsion.
The 12 councilmembers who voted for expulsion included Brooklyn’s Mark Treyger, Carlos Menchaca, Rafael Espinal and Antonio Reynoso.
Brooklyn Councilmembers Alicka Ampry-Samuel, Inez Barron, Justin Brannan, Robert Cornegy, Chaim Deutsch, Brad Lander, Stephen Levin, Farah Louis, Kalman Yeger and Laurie Cumbo all voted against.
“We are nothing without staff. I am nothing without my staff,” said Councilmember Treyger, explaining to the Eagle why he voted in support of expulsion. “I felt compelled to act and to vote for expulsion based on the totality of multiple offenses cited in the report. The harassment, the retaliation and the fact that there was no recognition and no remorse: it was very chilling.”
Councilmember King, who is black, called the ethics inquiry into his actions a “campaign… to lynch me,” according to the New York Daily News. When given a chance to speak ahead of the vote, he did not apologize.
City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who called on King to resign but voted against the amendment to expel him, said that he was afraid expulsion could set a dangerous precedent and would go against the wishes of the voters.
“One of the things we have in a democracy is voters get to decide who their elected officials are. We may not agree with that decision all the time, but that is what the voters get to decide. And Councilmember King has been elected three times by the voters of his district,” said Johnson at a press conference.
The penalty given to Andy King was the harshest the council has ever given out. The council also hired Redwood Enterprise this year to address the legislative body’s sexual harassment policies, which it is currently auditing, according to a council spokesperson.
The Brooklyn staffers who spoke with the Eagle, nearly all of whom were women, said they were disappointed that councilmembers accused of mistreating or sexually harassing women are not disciplined more harshly — and that so few women in the council voted to boot King.
“I think he should have been expelled. I think there’s always just been a slap on the wrist when it comes to these kinds of issues,” said another female staffer for a Brooklyn councilmember. “The way Councilmember [Barry] Grodenchik was treated — how that was mishandled didn’t make me think Andy King was going to be treated any differently.”
Grodenchik admitted in May to paying inappropriate attention to a female staffer, including giving her unwanted hugs and kisses and making comments about her weight. This came after he initially denied the woman’s claims. He stepped down from his Parks and Recreation Committee chairmanship.
The same staffer said that inappropriate behavior in the workplace extends beyond councilmembers.
“I think a lot of female staff have a really cynical view. It’s not just councilmembers who are creepy, it’s lobbyists, too. It’s a really patriarchal work environment that’s not always the most comfortable,” the staffer said.
She called it “hugely disappointing” that more women did not vote for expulsion. “It just shows that identity politics only goes so far and it’s not enough to just elect more women. We need to elect people who fight for gender equity.”
Of the council’s 51 members, only 12 are women. Manhattan’s Helen Rosenthal was the only one that supported the expulsion.
One former staffer to a Brooklyn councilmember said she was harassed while working for the body, but that her boss swiftly took care of it. “He handled things pretty much the way you would pray and hope a supervisor would,” the staffer said. “The particular issue happened on a Friday and by Monday there were certain things put in place for it to never happen again.”
The former staffer said she thought King should have been expelled. “There were definitely certain things I thought were harsher than I’ve seen the council in the past, but I don’t think they went far enough,” she said of the punishment.
“Who would want to work in that kind of environment? If the council’s goal is to discourage women from pursuing careers in government, they’re doing a great job,” said Cat Almonte, managing director of the Broad Room, a New York City activist organization that advocates for women. “[The] vote sends a clear message that abusers and harassers will be treated with kid gloves.”
One male staffer who works for a Brooklyn councilmember who voted against expulsion said he thought King would resign before the vote — and added that he wished more councilmembers had voted in favor of expulsion.
“I do think more people should have voted in favor of [expulsion],” he said. “I bet [women staffers] feel incredibly disappointed. There’s no way you can do this work without your fellow coworkers feeling safe and like they have an ally.”
Update (2:45 p.m.): This article has been updated to include quotes from a former council staffer.
Update (Nov. 8 at 10:25 a.m.): This article has been updated with additional information.
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