Article by reporters Kelsey O’Connor and Jolene Almendarez.
ITHACA, N.Y. — Karen Baer, director of the Office of Human Rights in Tompkins County, is on a leave of absence. Officials have declined to comment about the issue, stating that it is a personnel matter.
Baer’s leave of absence began Friday and Public Information Officer Marcia Lynch declined to comment about whether the absence was paid or unpaid.
Tompkins County Legislator Chair Mike Lane gave the following statement at the onset of the legislature meeting Tuesday:
Karen Baer is on leave from the Director of Human Rights position. As this is a personnel matter, the County will not be commenting on the circumstances surrounding it. However, there are a couple of inaccuracies being reported that should be corrected. First, Ms. Baer was not escorted from the Office of Human Rights by a Tompkins County Sheriff. There certainly was no cause for such action. Second, this is not the result of an opinion piece she submitted to The Ithaca Voice on September 26, 2017. We find it regrettable that rumors like this have been circulated concerning Ms. Baer without any foundation.
About two weeks prior to Baer’s leave of absence, she wrote an opinion piece about “bringing human rights home,” where she said the Office of Human Rights has struggled to get support for its human rights initiatives from county officials.
“At every turn, we have been met with strong resistance — taking place, for the most part, behind closed doors,” Baer wrote.
Prominent Ithaca Attorney Ray Schlather spoke passionately about the Office of Human Rights during the public comments portion of the meeting asking legislators to have a steadfast commitment to the office.
“I am here to emphasize that most seriously and emphatically that the Office of Human Right is an enormously helpful and important tool in this community, and I caution anybody here who somehow will attempt to exploit or seek to use these recent events as a mechanism for dismantling that office…you’re making a mistake,” Schlather said.
He said that in an era of increasing intolerance it is important to speak out and provide resources for those who have been historically mistreated and discriminated against.
“We cannot remain silent. We cannot sit still. We must marshal our assets, marshal the forces, use the instruments and the tools that are available to us. And fortunately, we have that tool. We have the Office of Human Rights. It’s done a good job and it will continue to do a good job. It is the tool that roots out the bias and the prejudice and the systemic inequities in this society where poverty increasingly deepens as the gap between the haves and the have nots increasingly widens,” Schlather said.
He declined to speak directly about Baer or the causes of her absence after his public statements.
Office of Human Rights employee Xavier Rusk spoke as a private citizen during the public comments portion of the meeting saying that the office remains committed to serving the community.
He said employees at the office remain “dedicated to human rights promotion an protection” and will continue to provide the highest level of professional services to the community.
He wore a lanyard with an identification card on it with Baer’s name and photo on it.
Rusk declined to discuss the matter aside from his public comments.
Baer was appointed director in 2013. She reports to County Administrator Joe Mareane and works with the volunteer Board of Human Rights Commissioners. He has declined to comment about the matter.
Before coming to Tompkins County, Baer was executive director of the Geneva Human Rights Commission in Geneva, New York. As director, Baer is responsible for developing “county-wide strategies for eliminating discrimination in the areas of employment, housing, lending, public accommodation, and education,” the OHR website states.
Baer did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
Featured image: File photo