So let me get this straight.
Women who worked in New Orleans’ property management department would be upset about conditions and pay. They’d go to their male boss’s office in search of some moral support. They’d wind up pulling up their dresses and dancing for him. And it was all perfectly proper.
That is how former operations manager Herman Hogues described the situation that had led to his unpaid suspension and subsequent retirement following at least three sexual harassment accusations, when interviewed recently by Advocate reporter Jessica Williams.
He added this: “One thing is, I am an older guy, but I play. Not sexually, but I do play. They come in and they ask me advice: ‘Do you know anybody that can help me? Help my children? I need a better job. I need some money, Mr. Herman.’
“They come in and they play, they do the booty pop, and show themselves, they would do that,” he said.
Hogues later dialed back his account and said just one woman exposed herself and that she was harassing him, but the jig was up. And the women in question declined to talk to the paper, so it’s safe to assume that Hogues’ account, which is plenty shocking on its own, is the most innocent possible version of the story.
So good for New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell for cleaning house at the department, which she described recently as a longstanding “cesspool” of sexual harassment. Acting on allegations that apparently didn’t reach top city officials until the waning days of former Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s tenure, Landrieu suspended Hogues, and Cantrell later fired his bosses at the department for allegedly ignoring the complaints.
Taken at face value, their comments to The Advocate reveal a culture in which inappropriate behavior either wasn’t taken seriously enough or wasn’t addressed in any systematic way. Former department director George Patterson said none of the allegations were proven and that he had no knowledge of them. Former deputy director Edward Sens said he did have concerns that Hogues was “too familiar” with female employees and told Patterson and assistant chief administrative officer Courtney Bagneris, but that nothing was done. He called it an “ongoing problem,” and now says he has become a scapegoat.
The details of what happened aren’t clear because city officials are withholding records due to the possibility of litigation. But when Cantrell said there was “no accountability,” well, that’s pretty indisputable.
That there is accountability now likely owes much to timing.
The Me Too movement has aimed a spotlight at improper workplace behavior and created a framework for talking about these issues, as well as demand for formal policies to prevent abuse and address allegations. Many victims probably still fear reprisal, but they also have reason to feel safer in speaking up.
Institutions everywhere, including governments at all levels, are rushing to catch up. The state Legislature recently adopted policies to prevent sexual harassment, and the New Orleans City Council passed a local version that bans unwelcome sexual advances by supervisors, as well sexually-tinged jokes, innuendo and repeated requests for dates. Cantrell’s administration is putting together new training protocols, complaint procedures and penalties.
And the turnover in administrations means Cantrell is already looking at each department and deciding on who should lead it and how it should be run. So it’s a natural time to bring in new leadership anyway.
Of course, it shouldn’t have taken a big social movement or a new mayor for incidents like these to stop. Thank goodness they are stopping, though, and that tools are finally being put in place to head off these incidents in the future.
The one thing that rings true from Hogues’ account is that many people who work in City Hall do settle for low pay, along with often challenging working conditions. They shouldn’t have to put up with the likes of him.