ANNAPOLIS -- The executive director of Maryland's Human Relations Commission took a quick straw poll last night to underscore her point about the troubling frequency of sexual harassment.
Turning to several dozen people waiting to speak at a public hearing, Jennifer Burdick asked how many had ever been subjected to unwanted sexual comments, looks or touches. Nearly every woman raised her hand.
"No one should experience this kind of intimidation," she said, testifying on behalf of legislation that would make sexual harassment a crime in Maryland's capital. "No employer should tolerate it."
Alderman Carl O. Snowden has introduced a bill that would allow Circuit Court judges to assess fines of up to $1,000 against people convicted of harassment. Employers also would be penalized if they knowingly allowed the behavior.
If the City Council approves the measure, Annapolis would become the first jurisdiction in Maryland with its own sexual harassment law.
Members of the National Organization of Women and representatives of several city agencies showed up last night in support of the proposed legislation. The Annapolis Chamber of Commerce opposed it on the grounds that penalties already are adequately covered by federal and state laws.
In a written statement to the council committee that held last night's hearing, business leaders emphasized their commitment to providing more training programs to combat sexual harassment.
"Clearly, we need some strengthening at the federal and state level, but we feel the best strategy is through education," said Jeffrey Rouch, a lobbyist for Nationwide Insurance and a chamber member. "Why does Annapolis need its own law?"
Alderman Snowden, a Democrat who represents the city's 5th Ward, said the legislation would close several loopholes and send a message that sexual harassment won't be tolerated.
One of the problems with the existing process, he said, is that it covers only people who work for companies with at least 15 employees. A secretary to a doctor would not be covered, for example.
Currently, victims of sexual harassment can bring complaints to the Human Relations Commission or pursue legal action under the Civil Rights Act passed by Congress last year. But they often must wait for a long fact-finding review, Ms. Burdick said.
"It can be a very difficult process," agreed Yevola Peters, a private consultant who used to head the city's non-profit Community Action Agency. "With the time process and the anguish going through it, I have seen many people give up."
Although she suffered from sexual harassment in her career, Ms. Peters said, "It has not overcome me. I think I have overcome it."
She was one of several women who pointed out that men are increasingly victims of harassment. A few years ago, she said, a young man who was working at a fast-food restaurant came to her and complained that he was being pressured to have a sexual relationship with his supervisor, an older woman.
Council members, while agreeing that the topic is extremely timely, expressed divided opinions on Alderman Snowden's proposal. One alderman questioned the broad definition of harassment, and another wondered aloud whether the city could "legislate a code of ethics."