This opinion piece was written by District 13 Tompkins County Legislator Martha Robertson. It was NOT written by The Ithaca Voice. … click here to submit community announcements directly to The Voice, or contact us at tips@ithacavoice.com. 

ITHACA, N.Y. — It’s hard to be a first-time candidate for office; there’s so much to learn. I admit being overwhelmed when I first took office! However, the learning curve should not absolve candidates from checking basic facts before writing an op-ed. Especially in this era of Trump fantasies, we have a responsibility to know the truth and tell it.

Martha Robertson

One candidate for Tompkins County Legislature recently wrote (Ithaca Voice, 8/4/17) that we need a local law protecting human rights, saying that “A county law matters, and it’s more important than ever under the administration of Donald Trump.”1991 – Local Law C

No question that such protections are essential. I’m proud to say that in 1991, long before Trump was on the scene, the Legislature passed “Local Law C,” banning discrimination based on sexual orientation. In 2004, we revised the law to make sure it completely includes sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression in every conceivable way.

Have a human rights complaint? Call 607-277-4080!

Before I go on, there’s an urgent need to correct the implication that complaints under our local law are not being addressed in Tompkins County. Anyone with a concern should not hesitate to contact the County’s Office of Human Rights (607-277-4080) as a first step. Our office has historically tried first to mediate all issues before a complaint is formally filed; many conflicts can be and are resolved without the time, cost, and uncertainty of formal legal procedures.

Incorrectly, the author implies that because an enforcement protocol with New York State lapsed in 2008, the Office of Human Rights cannot act. But we do not need an agreement with the State to mediate, counsel, and help people with complaints. In fact, the vast majority of complaints used to be resolved through mediation. If the number of cases has gone down in recent years, I worry that messages like that in the Ithaca Voice piece contribute to the mistaken impression that our office can offer no help. They can – and they should.

Working with New York State

If local mediation doesn’t work, complaints are handled at the State level by attorneys highly trained and experienced in the relevant areas of law. How long does that take? 68% of the cases take less than six months to complete and about 95% are done within a year, according to NYS.

The author’s claim that “resolving human rights complaints through the state can take years” only serves to discourage people from taking the steps that are available to them, right now, to improve their lives.

At this time, a local Fair Hearing Board would only duplicate the extensive procedure that exists at the State level. It would draw limited local taxpayer money away from other areas of social justice where funds are sorely needed – such as enhancing our alternatives to incarceration and developing new programs for people returning from jail or prison.

In the meantime, conversations are ongoing to reestablish our earlier agreement with NYS. Our Human Rights Commissioner assured the Legislature last November that she was making good progress on restoring that agreement, so we assume that the renewal should come soon.

Diversity: A Core Value in County’s Hiring Process

On another topic, the author wrote about the qualifications for three new hires at the County (They mistakenly included the search for the director at Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services, which is an independent not-for-profit. The County has no role in that search.).

The County has a commitment to diversity and cultural competency in all hires, not just the three top-level searches now underway. That commitment is manifest in many ways, from the language of the postings and job descriptions, to the make-up of search committees, to our wide-ranging recruitment efforts.

In most other counties, a couple of insiders make such hires; not here. For example, the DSS search committee includes department heads, the president of our largest union, a welfare rights advocate, a client representative, a human services agency director, and the Legislators who serve as chair and vice chair of our Workforce, Diversity, and Inclusion Committee.

The search committee’s diversity extends to race, age, gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. The County spends several thousand dollars on each major recruitment to reach people throughout the county and beyond, to gather the broadest possible pool of qualified applicants. Postings for the Administrator’s position, for example, went to organizations such as the National Association of Hispanic MBAs, the National Forum for Black Public Administrators, and the National Association of Women MBAs, to name just a few.

The first meeting of each search committee includes a full training workshop called “Inclusive Excellence in Hiring” by the County’s Manager of Talent Acquisition and Engagement, Michelle Rios- Dominguez. Many of the questions we put to candidates, and use to judge their fitness to serve, relate to cultural competence and how diversity and inclusion fit within their value system.

Equity, inclusion, and diversity are core values in your County government, and not because we must “defend” against the Trump administration. These have been our values since long before Donald Trump first questioned President Obama’s citizenship.

Martha Robertson
Tompkins County Legislator, District 13, Dryden (west)

Jolene Almendarez

Jolene Almendarez is Managing Editor at The Ithaca Voice. She can be reached at jalmendarez@ithacavoice.com; you can learn more about her at the links in the top right of this box.