The four-person staff at the Tompkins County Office of Human Rights. From left to right: Karen Baer, Rebecca Sims, Xavier Rusk, and Carmen Arroyo.

The Tompkins County Office of Human Rights has been under scrutiny lately after a county legislator proposed during budgetary meetings that it be entirely dismantled. The county department has been short-staffed over the last few years, but the four employees at the 50-year-old office say they are back on track and ready to make a difference for Tompkins County residents in the forthcoming years. 

But the Office of Human Rights has been limited in what it is able to do since 2008, when the New York State Division of Human Rights allowed the Memorandum of Understanding (MOR) between the county and state agency to lapse. The MOR had given the county office the authority to investigate complaints, and without it they could only help complainants submit their reports of discrimination to the state division. 

“It’s been a decade since they’ve actually been able to investigate anything,” Legislator Michael Sigler (R-Sigler) said when asked why he proposed elimination of the office. “That doesn’t seem to me to be a functioning department.”

Sigler said that the proposal to do away with the office was a “starting point” to get a discussion going among legislators. $330,000 a year is a lot to spend on a department that seems to lack a clear mission, he said. “That’s really hard for me to explain taxpayers — why we’re spending so much on it,” he said. “That’s a problem that I thought needed addressing. I would just like to know where they’re going with it.” 

There is one thing that Sigler said could be a game changer for OHR. Karen Baer, OHR director, says she has been in discussions with the state division, located in the Bronx, and that the state may be willing to enter back into a Memorandum of Understanding. One of the major hurdles, she said, is that OHR is being asked to wait until the state division upgrades its case tracking system that will enable the state office to interface with the local one. 

“They’re in the process of upgrading that technology so they can have other relationships with other municipalities in New York State,” Baer said. “Once that’s resolved we can negotiate an MOU, or once we get something on the table we can discuss what the relationship looks like.” 

In the roughly two decades that the MOU was in effect, the OHR had the ability to help the state enforce its own human rights law. If a minority came to the office with a complaint, the staff had the power to do the intake, conduct an investigation, make findings of cause or no reasonable cause, and oversee conciliations, said Baer. Once the findings were sent to the state, the state engaged in the final stage of that process, which may or may not include a public hearing. All this was done with an office staffed very similarly to the way it is now, according to Baer. 

It might be slow going, but regaining an MOU would mark significant progress for an office that last year was marred by internal strife involving the Tompkins County Human Rights Commission, an advisory board to the county legislature. One-third of the Commission members resigned in the summer of 2015, including David McNamara. “I didn’t agree that were addressing any tangible outcomes that I could see,” he said. 

Whether or not the MOU is restored, another option would be to enact a local law that would give the office the authority to conduct its own investigations. 

Baer said she advocated for and passed a similar law at the Geneva Human Rights Commission in Geneva, NY, where she said she was able to bring in $130,000 to $150,000 annually for the City of Geneva for capacity building from the Housing and Urban Development Council. The local law was extensive, she said, because it had to be deemed equivalent to the Fair Housing Act.

“It was the only city in the state of New York that enjoyed that kind of status,” she said, “which meant that our local office could enforce the Fair Housing Act on behalf of HUD.” She drafted a similar law for Tompkins County but said she had difficulty getting it off of the ground, in part because at 35 pages it was deemed too long and because of concerns about the costs associated with holding local hearings, a factor she isn’t worried about, saying that the vast majority of cases were conciliated and never went to a hearing. 

For legislators like Michael Lane (D-Dryden), Tompkins County Legislature Chair, the local law seems like a big undertaking when there is the possibility of simply restoring the MOU. “We’re trying to get us back to where we were before because we thought it was a system that worked pretty well,” he said. “This law would require real change in the way everything is done.” 

“It hasn’t come through and been thoroughly looked at by county,” Lane said of the proposed local law, “but we’re a little reluctant because of the potential cost and administrative difficulties.”

The law has yet to be fully presented to any committee of the Tompkins County Legislature, said James Dennis (D-Ulysses), who had questions about the logistics. “Who is the judge and the jury in these cases?” he asked. “You’re basically setting a court system up here locally.” 

So what does the Tompkins County Office of Human Rights (OHR) do to improve people’s lives on a daily basis? Among standing up for people whose rights are violated, it also conducts human rights outreach and education, helps Tompkins County apply for federal and state housing dollars from the NY State Department of Homes and Community Renewal, and lends administrative assistance and expertise to County efforts in implementing its Workforce Diversity and Inclusion policy the website states. 

In 2015, 49 percent of the 81 cases the office saw were employment complaints, and 25 percent were housing-related. Currently, if someone has a human rights issue they can call or was into the office, and Xavier Rusk, paralegal aide for the OHR, will handle the intake and conduct a consultation. He will write a report and help the complainant get in touch with the state division. 

Rusk said he appreciates the hyperlocal aspect of his work. People are often able to walk or take public transportation to the office, located on East State Street, if need be, and they often feel more comfortable speaking with someone from the area. “It gives it a more natural feeling when relating a story that can be a traumatic for some people,” he said, “and it give us an opportunity to ask ourselves “what is this that’s going on? Would this be considered discrimination? We can analyze that information and include it in our workshops and trainings.” 

Newly hired Rebecca Sims, program and outreach specialist, is filling a role that was left vacant for a year due to a county hiring freeze. Currently she’s getting ready for a flood of entries for the 29th Annual Universal Declaration of Human Rights art competition, due November 18. The fourth staff member, Receptionist Carmen Arroyo, has been with the office since 2003 and is instrumental to the daily operations of the OHR, her fellow employees said. 

Including in the proposed budget is $4,500 to conduct 15 tests when a landlord is suspected of housing discrimination. A person of color, for example, would approach a landlord to see if they will be rented to, and later a white test subject will do the same. The results would be sent to the state division, the Fair Housing Council, or Housing and Urban Development.   

Though the office is still subject to criticism by some, it was heartily advocated for by many members of the public who showed up at a recent legislature meeting to respond to Sigler’s proposal. “They work hard in spite of not having enforcement powers,” said Human Rights Commission Chair Jamila Simon. “We need to expand the office, not dismantle it,” added Marcia Baum, retired director of the Greater Ithaca Activities Center. 

With $15,000 in recommended use of rollover funds for enforcement and outreach staff training remaining in the proposed 2017 budget (expected to be adopted at the Tompkins County Legislature November 14), Baer said she’s hoping the fully-staffed office can get back on track. 

Oddly enough, she said, the number-one complaint her office has been receiving lately is that businesses are discriminating against service animals used to assist those with a physical or emotional disabilities. 

“I personally believe that local investigations benefit local people, and the best part about working with the state division is it’s nice to partner with another agency that believes in the work you’re doing,” Baer said. “That relationship I really appreciate, knowing that we’re just working together for the people who live in Tompkins County.”  

 

 

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