It is with both reluctance and sadness that I feel I must write to share another viewpoint regarding the situation involving Karen Baer, Director of the Tompkins County Human Rights office, myself, and the Tompkins County Legislature. Many of you who read this will recall that, during my 22 years of living in the City of Ithaca and my many years of teaching in the Ithaca City School District, much of the focus of my work, in collaboration with a group of like-minded individuals from the community, was on improving educational outcomes for children of color and children from low income families in our community. During that time I was also fortunate to serve several years on the Tompkins County Human Rights Commission (HRC), working with Directors going back to Teddy Zimrot and wonderful colleagues, too many to name here, on the Commission itself. It was with many fond memories of those days that, when my term on the Legislature ended, I decided to volunteer to be on the Human Rights Commission again. When then Chair of the Commission, Leon Lawrence, left the Commission, I was elected to succeed him as Chair. Karen Baer was, at that time, Director of the Human Rights Office.
To understand the conflict that eventually led to my resignation as Chair and as a member of the Commission it is important to be familiar with the language of the County Charter and the Bylaws of the HRC, as adopted by the County Legislature. Both documents, taken in context, describe a relationship between the Human Rights Office and the Human Rights Commission as being one of what I describe as “collaboration”.
For example, the County Charter (as found online at www.tompkinscountyny.gov,) describes, as part of Karen’s job, “…serves as an advisee/advisor of the volunteer Board of Human Rights Commissioners.” The Commission, among other responsibilities listed in its By-laws, directs its Chair to submit an annual report to the Legislature, not to the Director of the Human Rights Office. The Bylaws further require quarterly reports from the Director to the Commission, including a “summary of number and types of inquiries to the office during the month, new cases received by type, progress report on open cases including date of filing, a summary of any trends or important issues identified and any other information deemed important by the Commission or the Director.”
During my previous service on the Commission those reports from the Director to the Commission were important in assisting Commissioners in identifying community trends and planning educational work as a Commission in addressing identified issues. Other than once when, as Chair, I pressed Karen for a report, she never, during my tenure, made a report to the Commission on the work of her office. Even that one report did not contain the information on inquiries and cases described above.
As time passed it became apparent to me, notwithstanding the language above, that Karen regarded herself as the supervisor of the Commissioners in the same way that she was the supervisor of the employees of her office. In other words, Karen was the boss and Commissioners were to do as she tells told them to do. As Chair, I came to feel that I would be angering Karen and doing something I shouldn’t do if I made any kind of independent decision. At first her disapproval was somewhat subtle, but as time went by it became more obvious. At one point Karen asked me to work on a project with one of her staff. I agreed to do so and then when I contacted the staff person by email to begin our work I was told very clearly by Karen that any contact I had with Karen’s staff must go through Karen. I reminded Karen that she had asked me to work with the person, but it made no difference. I was still to go through Karen to communicate with the staff person. I tried on numerous occasions to set a mutually agreeable time to sit down and talk about the tension that I could feel between us, but Karen was not willing to talk about it. Looking back, I realize that I should have taken literally a statement that she made to me when we first met and talked over lunch. At that time she was very new to her position and she was clearly excited as she said, “I’ve never had a Commission before!”
Eventually I had to admit to myself that she was very unlikely to allow us to work out a mutually agreeable solution.
The tipping point came when I received a request from the Chair of the Legislature Committee to which the Commission reported, the Chair of the Health and Human Services (HHS) Committee. I was asked by the Chair of HHS for a meeting to talk about how things were going with the Commission. It is important to note that it was the practice of this particular Legislator to have similar meetings with the Chairs of the other county groups which reported to the HHS committee as well. There was nothing unusual about the request and I was fine with scheduling such a meeting.
At the next Commission meeting, as part of the Chair’s report, I said that I had met with the Legislator who was Chair of HHS, at that person’s request, and I summarized our discussion. Looking back, I think my meeting with the HHS Chair was exactly the excuse that Karen was looking for to be publicly angry with me in front of the other members of the Commission. It obviously didn’t matter what I said to the HHS Chair. The fact that I had the meeting without going through Karen was enough. Despite my attempts to assure both Karen and the Commission that my meeting with the HHS Chair was typical and not at all out of the ordinary for this particular Legislator, there was no way I could placate Karen. As a result, the Commissioners of Color all joined in my censure. They all made it clear that the only possible ending for the incident was my resignation. At the next Commission meeting there was an attempt to hold a vote of “no confidence” in me as Chair, but when it was clear that the vote would not pass the idea was withdrawn.
I continued as Chair for several months after the events described above in the optimistic hope that I could somehow work out a resolution with Karen that would allow us to put this period of conflict behind us and get back to the work of the Commission. Commissioners expressed support for having a retreat to set priorities and plan ahead. I sent out a poll to find the best date/time for the retreat and was subsequently chastised by a supporter of Karen for sending out a poll to Commissioners without polling them to find out if they were OK with me sending out a poll! When I was told that I had to take a poll of Commissioners to find out if they were agreeable to sending out a poll, that was the final straw.
I am still very sad when I think about the events described above. I believed then, and continue to believe, that the County has a strong commitment to the cause of Human Rights and that its actions from here on will demonstrate that commitment. The events that are occurring right now around the current Director, Karen Baer, do not, in my opinion, represent any kind of retreat from support for Human Rights on the part of the County. Rather, if truth be told, they represent the County’s reasonable and longsuffering response to an employee whose actions over a period of time have led to the unhappy result that we’ve read about in the news. We will never be able to independently evaluate the need for the County’s actions because of Karen’s right to privacy around a personnel issue. While she can say anything she pleases to defend herself, the County is bound to keep silent on the reasons for its action.
I would however, ask everyone to consider the following: The County budget for next year contains full funding for the Human Rights Office, including roll-over funding for an over-target request by its Director, Karen Baer. This means, in effect, that the Human Rights Office will receive a greater percentage increase next year that those departments that either did not make over-target requests or did not have them approved. Does this fact sound like the action of a Legislature that is trying to diminish the importance of human rights in our community?