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Sexual harassment claims prompt guidelines from Espoo city council but expert says members can't be dismissed

The chief lawyer at the Association of Finnish Local and Regional Authorities, says that general discussion or claims made in the media are not sufficent grounds for suspending a city council member.

Tuolloin perussuomalaisen valtuustoryhmän puheenjohtaja Seppo Huhta Espoon valtuuston kokouksessa länsimetron viivästymisestä 13. kesäkuuta 2016.
Seppo Huhta at an Espoo city council meeting in June 2016. Image: Heikki Saukkomaa / Lehtikuva

Last week, the newspapers Iltalehti and Helsingin Sanomat both reported that the chair of the local Blue Reform Party organisation in Espoo and alternate member of the city council, Seppo Huhta, has been accused of sexual harassment targeting several female members of city organisations.

Espoo's city council negotiating committee was due to meet Monday to discuss the claims and the ensuring media furore.

In a statement to Yle, Huhta denied the claims and said that he is considering legal action and filing a formal complaint with the Council for Mass Media.

The chair of Espoo's city council, Jyrki Kasvi of the Greens, says that the matter was discussed in the last meeting of the council's negotiating committee which has now asked the city's health and safety representative to draft new guidelines for dealing with cases of sexual harassment.

Kasvi added that it is difficult for official organisations to deal with sexual offenses beyond offering support, as any legal action has to be initiated by the victim.

"Of course, this sort of thing affects how public duties are handled, since the individual is uncertain about being able to attend meetings and other events safely and without stress," Jyrki Kasvi points out.

Limited sanctions

Ida Sulin, who is the chief lawyer at the Association of Finnish Local and Regional Authorities, says that elected officials in municipalities cannot be removed from office.

"As a matter of principle, an elected official cannot be dismissed, so once elected to a post, he or she is there to stay," Sulin points out.

Legislation governing municipalities does contain a provision for elected officials to promote the benefit of residents and behave with the highest dignity in the discharge of their duties.

This, however, in practice is a guideline since the law does not stipulate any penalties for its breach.

Under certain circumstances, though, city councils can temporarily suspend members.

"Municipal legislation does contain a section stating that if an elected council member acts in such a manner as to be charged with a crime while carrying out public duties, or even otherwise, a city council can suspend this member for the duration of legal proceedings," Ida Sulin explains.

And so, according to Sulin, general discussion or claims made in the media are not sufficent grounds for suspending a city council member.

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