ITHACA, NY – The Tompkins Legislature doesn’t usually allow for public comment during its expanded budget meetings — but due to the sheer volume of people who came to speak on Thursday, an exception was made.

With around 20 people turning up to speak, budget committee chair Jim Dennis decided to allow an impromptu public comment period at the beginning of the meeting.

The turnout was in response to a proposal by Legislator Mike Sigler made during an Oct. 6 budget meeting that called for cutting the organization’s funding — about $320,000 a year — from the county’s budget. Sigler withdrew the proposal, but several members and supporters of the group came with the intent of making sure that amendment wasn’t raised again.

Sigler’s argument, which he raised again during the meeting, was that the Office of Human Rights had become “a department without a mission” that could not function as intended.

Not the first time

Ostensibly, the OHR’s purpose is to investigate and eliminate discrimination in housing, employment, credit and other areas. Much of the discussion on Thursday, however, hinged around the county’s lapsed Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the New York State Division of Human Rights, which supporters say has limited OHR’s ability to enforce on any violations.

“It’s unfortunate that instead of accolades for being the most diverse county office, the OHR is being targeted,” said Jamila Walida Simon, chair of the Tompkins Human Rights Commission. “In the 199th year of the Tompkins legislature we should be applauding offices that are underfunded and understaffed and remain diverse, or we set the bar really low for everyone.”

Joyce Muchen, a former chair of the Tompkins Human Rights Commission, called the situation “a disgrace” and said that this was not the first time an attempt was made to cut funding to the OHR, “and it won’t be the last.”

“The work that the commission has had to do to stay open against the words of the legislature takes away from the work that needs to happen in the community,” she said. “Every moment you’re voting against the commission, it’s a vote for racism and for discrimination in the community.”

Muchen also called out a potential conflict of interest that during discussions to defund the office in previous years, there were some legislators who were landlords who pushed back against the commissions efforts to fight discrimination in housing.

“A discussion that needs to be had”

As back and forth between the public and legislators is not provided for in the floor rules, Sigler took his three minutes speaking as a member of the public to defend his position.

“It’s a department without a mission. Every one of these people said, ‘We gotta to go after this MOU.’ We’ve been doing it for a decade! Literally a decade we’ve been trying to get that back,” Sigler said. “We keep spending the $300,000 to keep this department open, yet we can’t function the way this thing is supposed to function. And we seem to be happy with that.”

Sigler framed the turmoil over the potential defunding as an opportunity to discuss issues that haven’t been actively discussed. He added that he felt that dealing with these issues should be the job of the whole government, not one single office. He also noted that his suggestion wasn’t simply to eliminate the office, but to find another way to use that money toward the same goal, but with a new methodology.

“It’s a discussion that needs to be had. If we’re not going to have the discussion, everything’s going to stay the same, and frankly I don’t think anyone in the room is going to be happy with that,” Sigler said. “I’m not satisfied with that, I want more than that.”

Karen Baer, current director of OHR, was one of the last to speak. While she agreed with Sigler’s call for conversation, she criticized the legislator for not bringing these issues to her before pursuing cutting funding to the department.

“For a person who wants to have discussions, I was never contacted prior to this amendment. No one asked me or told me that they had issues with our office,” Baer said. “I would’ve really liked to have that discussion, instead of finding an email at midnight saying that someone is trying to cut my whole staff.”

Michael Smith

Michael Smith reports on politics and local news for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached via email at msmith@ithacavoice.com, by cell at (607) 229-0885, or via Google Voice at (518) 650-3639.