ITHACA, N.Y. — Tompkins County Legislature Chambers were packed Monday evening. Though it was the public hearing for the county’s 2018 budget, all but one person was there to talk about something else — the Tompkins County Office of Human Rights and potential permanent removal of the office’s director, Karen Baer.
Baer has overseen the four-person office since 2013. Just over two weeks ago, she was abruptly placed on unpaid leave and charged with insubordination among other things, which could result in her being fired. Baer has released documents from the county that outline the charges against her. They say she has not fulfilled her duties as director and accuse her of creating a “dysfunctional environment” after refusing to comply with an investigation into claims of discrimination she made against the county.
Baer has denied the allegations against her and plans to fight the charges legally.
When it comes to personnel matters, the county cannot comment much.
In a recent statement regarding the leave of absence, Tompkins County Legislature Chair Mike Lane said “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.” Lane went on to address rumors surrounding her absence.
Though the county has not elaborated on the circumstances, The Ithaca Voice has obtained leaked documents that shed light on investigations commissioned by Tompkins County to investigate claims made by Baer of discrimination, retaliation and a hostile work environment.
The investigative documents obtained by the Voice have been confirmed authentic by two sources with knowledge of the investigation.
The Ithaca Voice has also filed a Freedom of Information request for the full documents related to the investigations, but has not received a response yet. The county has until Nov. 15 to respond.
Claims of discrimination in Tompkins County
In response to claims Baer made of discrimination, retaliation and a hostile work environment, the county hired attorneys to investigate. There have been two full investigations.
A report from the most recent investigation completed by Timothy Taylor, an Albany-based attorney, is dated July 11, 2017. Reached by phone Monday, Taylor said the case is still pending and confidential, so he was not at liberty to discuss the case.
According to the documents, Taylor was hired to investigate allegations made by Baer, who claimed in emails dating from July 2016 to October 2016 that legislators and other officials engaged in a “pattern of retribution and exclusion as the result of her November 20, 2015 claims of discrimination. In the same correspondence, she alleged that Tompkins County engaged in a pattern of systemic and institutional discrimination against women and people of color.”
Taylor writes that central to his investigation was answering the question of whether the county took any adverse action against Baer, specifically if she had been excluded from any county initiatives and opportunities in retaliation to her memo in 2015 that alleged discrimination.
Before getting into the details of his investigation, Taylor states “After a robust investigation and a thorough review of key documents, communication and emails, I find the claims of Ms. Baer are unfounded.”
In November 2015, Baer wrote a letter to Legislature Chair Mike Lane, making claims of discrimination. According to the documents, the letter states in part:
Likewise I am not able to understand why the HRC decision to replace its Chair has, as a result, created a hostile work environment for me. For example, in the past few months there have been a number of retaliatory measures directed toward me and my office by the Administrator and other County actors; and I believe these demeaning behaviors stem from my refusal to engage in discriminatory strategy against the HRC – a strategy involving a series of misguided directives I perceived to be based on race, color, and sex.
The statement refers to the HRC, or the Human Rights Commission. A few months prior to that letter, Pat Pryor, the former chair of the HRC, had resigned. According to findings in investigative documents from the county’s first investigation by Edward Hooks in March 2016, a rift was created between Baer and Pryor while they were working with the Empire State Pride Agenda in an effort to support the New York State Legislature adopting the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act.
The full story of what created the tension is long, but it began over a correction to a press release. Ultimately Baer and Pryor could not mend their relationship and members of the commission wanted Pryor to resign. For a few months the work of the Human Rights Commission came to a standstill, the investigation states. In August 2015, Pryor and a third of the nine-member board resigned, the Ithaca Times reported.
In the above letter, Baer is referring to the HRC decision to replace Pryor and how that decision resulted in a hostile work environment for Baer.
While the more recent investigation in July 2017 mentions claims made in November 2015 about a hostile work environment, it also examines a number of other claims Baer made in 2016 alleging discrimination and exclusion. A letter dated July 6, 2016 states:
Also, late last summer the County Administrator announced at an HHS Cabinet meeting that the County had convened a ban-the-box study committee. It was there that I learned OHR was not being asked to participate in it.
I fully realize that many of you are not motivated to exclude or even know or believe the fuller story as I have conveyed it. But I did want to make you aware that there exists a climate within this County workforce where exclusion and retribution is able to take hold in a very oppressive way.
So, I relate to you this story, by way of example, in order to allow you an opportunity to possibly empathize with what it must feel like for me and my staff (all persons of color) to read the highlights of your meeting last night, and to realize how invisible it makes us and our efforts seem in your eyes. In many ways, what has transpired does not appear dissimilar (both in style and impact) to the types of old-school tactics used for decades to exclude people like us.
This work is important to us. So much so, that it is more rewarding for us to be included than to be thanked, if such a choice has to be made. And in light of the recent Climate Survey initiative, perhaps we can find ways of going forward so that employees of color and women, in particular, can feel more included and appreciated in our workforce.
Another email to Lane was included, in which Baer outlines a number of situations she said demonstrate exclusion. The letter is dated Oct. 10, 2016.
May I reasonably assume that I do not have to provide my own evidence to show that I have been excluded from the following County initiatives, titles, and discussions acutely related to my areas of expertise: Climate Survey Steering Committee (see membership list); Fair Housing Officer (recommended by Ed Marx prior to July 2015); ADA Coordinator (overlooked after July 2015); Title VI Compliance (new hire and process in 2016); LGBTQ climate workshop for Dept. Heads (hired outside facilitators); Ban the Box initiative (see membership list); New office space (move was initially slated for end of last year, no update after July 2015); Legislature policy discussions about Source of Income protections (per Mr. Sigler’s comment at budget presentation), and the offering up of an Amendment to eliminate the OHR after the Annual Community Budget Forum took place and without any prior notice to me and my staff?
The last email that was included in the investigative documents was dated Oct. 23, 2016. It does not say who the email was addressed to but says “As I’ve expressed to you in the past, I have found your process for addressing my concerns to be demeaning, biased, secretive, and unprofessional; and I fear that other county employees may have been or may continue to be subjected to it.” She goes on to say she was excluded from a number of county opportunities related to her areas of expertise, including the Climate Survey Steering Committee.
Refusal to participate in investigation
After the claims, the investigative documents say that Baer’s allegations were not specific and “lack the facts needed to make a claim of discrimination.” Taylor also writes that she refused to take part in the investigation, which leads to one of the charges against her, insubordination.
Taylor states that when first speaking with Baer, she told him she did not trust the process and wanted to know the procedure the county was following to address her claims. After meeting with several county officials, he reached back out to Baer and “left several messages” which were never returned, the documents state.
Taylor writes: “It is extremely unusual for a claimant to refuse to participate in the investigation of her claims. Ms. Baer’s employer has directed her to participate into the investigation of her claims, yet she has refused. In my opinion, her conduct is insubordinate.”
Andrew Celli, Jr., an attorney representing Baer, said while Taylor attempted to call her office a few times, he said she never received the procedure she requested by email or in writing.
“Karen Baer was very clear with the investigator that she needed to understand what the process and procedures would be for this investigation before she was willing to participate. The investigator never provided those procedures or processes — not in writing and not any other way. And he had every opportunity to do so, but he failed to do so,” Celli said.
Celli provided a letter Baer did receive from Taylor dated June 5, 2017. The letter was to inform Baer that he would be in Ithaca on June 13 to investigate her complaints against the county. He said he has tried to contact her through her office and on her answering machine on several occasions unsuccessfully. He said if she had anything she would like him to consider as part of his investigation, to contact him before June 13. The letter did not contain any investigative procedures.
In response to Taylor’s letter, Baer sent a letter of her own addressing why she did not want to participate in “any investigation that is conducted or paid for by Tompkins County.”
She states Taylor did not provide her with a written process that he intended to follow in the investigation. She also said “rather than put myself through another County process at this time, I have decided to endure the ongoing hostility that I routinely face from senior administrators and legislators — whether it be through their direct hostile actions, exclusionary tactics, or silence.”
She said the reasons she outlined are why she has not responded to Taylor’s calls and said she will continue do so in the future. “I will eventually tell my story, but on my own terms and in my own time,” she wrote. The letter was in response to Taylor mailing her his conclusion, the investigation states.
Without Baer participating in the investigation and elaborating more on her claims, Taylor states “it was very difficult to develop a framework of analysis.”
Though Baer did not take part in the investigation, Taylor went forward with investigating her claims in the following areas: ban the box, anti-discrimination law, Climate Survey Initiative, Fair Housing Officer, ADA Coordinator, Title VI Compliance, LGBTQ Climate Workshop, New Office Space, Source of Income Protection and hostile work environment.
Taylor said he sought to address three questions: “Has Ms. Baer established that the County intended to take an adverse action against her in the manner alleged?” “Assuming that an adverse action was taken, was there a legitimate, non-retaliatory reason?” “Has Ms. Baer established that the adverse actions would not have been taken but for her November 20, 2015 claims?”
To investigate Baer’s claims, Taylor said he examined email exchanges between Baer and county officials and interviewed 12 people including County Administrator Joe Mareane; Deputy County Administrator Paula Younger; Deputy Commissioner of Human Resources Stephen Estes; Legislators Jim Dennis, Leslyn McBean-Clairborne, Carol Chock, Anna Kelles, Michael Lane, Will Burbank, Dan Klein and Michael Sigler; and Department of Social Services Commissioner Patricia Carey.
Taylor examined 12 areas Baer made claims about. The breakdown of each area is available in the documents.
Several of the claims relate to Baer and OHR not being included in hiring decisions or committees. In the cases of hiring a Fair Housing Officer and ADA coordinator, the report concluded that both do not require input from OHR, as decisions are made at an administrative level. In a couple cases, the report stated that Baer had an opportunity to be a part of committees but declined.
In the case of the Title VI compliance coordinator position, the investigation states that Baer “had a seat at the table during the hiring process but backed out of the process because she was short on staff.”
Taylor also examined the issue of an amendment during the county budget process that proposed to cut OHR. The amendment was proposed by Legislator Mike Sigler who later withdrew it. Taylor said in the interview process, he found all but one of the legislators and county officials he interviewed support OHR, value its work and want to see the Memorandum of Understanding the office had with the state restored so it can address human rights issues at a local level.
In his conclusion, Taylor said as an investigator he was inclined to take her allegations very seriously, and more so because she is the director of the Office of Human Rights. He called Baer’s behavior “baffling and bizarre.” He continues by saying, “In my opinion, her actions constitute insubordination, incompetence, neglect of duty, and misconduct. As a result, I believe that the OHR can no longer carry out its functions and the director can no longer carry out her duties. ”
Response to charges
Many in the community have stood by Baer and the Office of Human Rights after the charges. At a public hearing Monday regarding the budget, several people spoke positively of the work the office has done under the direction of Baer since she was hired. Though not everyone spoke, Legislature Chambers were packed with supporters.
“Doing human rights work has been my life and I have done it well,” Baer said at the public hearing Monday. “And nothing that is said by others behind closed doors to besmirch my character or question my abilities changes that. And I believe that my efforts and the work of the Office of Human Rights will live on regardless of the systemic attempts to render OHR staff and their work invisible.”
Baer has discounted the county’s investigations as biased and unfair.
In response to the charges, documents filed by her attorneys said the first investigation “either distorted or ignored altogether Ms. Baer’s good faith concerns about racial discrimination and hostile work environment she and other persons of color were experiencing. The process was obviously biased and unfair.”
In response to the recent investigation issued in July 2017, Baer said the lawyer belittled her concerns about race discrimination and retaliation. “Without any evidence whatsoever, the report concluded that Ms. Baer ‘created a dysfunctional environment’ and ‘completely delegitimized the work of the OHR,’ and as a result, ‘the OHR can no longer carry out its functions and the Director can no longer carry out her duties.’”
On Monday, the attorneys representing Baer, Andrew Celli and Zoe Salzman of Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady, objected to a hearing scheduled in Baer’s case. The attorneys allege that County Administrator Joe Mareane personally selected the hearing officer who will determine the charges against her, despite that Baer alleges “Mr. Mareane was personally and directly involved in the discrimination and retaliation against her,” the letter states.
The letter also claims the hearing as scheduled does not leave Baer enough time to inspect the evidence against her or issue subpoenas.
Baer’s unpaid leave is in effect for 30 days as the county pursues options to dismiss her. If found guilty of the accusations against her, she could be fired.
Update (Nov. 7) — A link to the Baer’s response to the charges has been added to the list of documents at the top of the article.
Featured image: Karen Baer, director of the Office of Human Rights, makes a statement during a public hearing Oct. 30. Kelsey O’Connor/Ithaca Voice