ITHACA, N.Y. — A hearing is underway to examine whether Karen Baer, director of the Office of Human Rights, will keep her job.
Baer was suspended in October after being charged with insubordination and creating a “dysfunctional environment.” Baer has denied the claims against her and said in a previous statement that removing her from her post was in retaliation for her “repeated efforts to speak truth to power and to shine a light in dark corners.”
A hearing is currently taking place to examine the three charges against her. If the hearing officer, Murry Solomon, finds merit to the charges, Baer could be fired. In the meantime, she is on paid leave (after being on unpaid leave previously) and a special adviser has been appointed the Office of Human Rights in her absence.
Personnel hearings such as this are typically not public, but Baer opted to have it open. It has been taking place in a conference room of the Tompkins County Health Department.
Though the hearing is looking at recent charges against her that she has not fulfilled her duties as director, the story begins many months before the charges.
Information about this case so far has been scattered, with documents released in pieces. The county typically does not comment on matters about employees and Mike Lane, chair of the Tompkins County Legislature, said in a statement after Baer’s removal that “the county will not be commenting on the circumstances surrounding it.” However, The Ithaca Voice has obtained a copy of the investigation the county paid for to look into Baer’s claims of retaliation and discrimination.
In opening statements Thursday, John McCann, who is representing the county, said Baer has failed to fulfill her responsibilities as director of the Office of Human Rights. He said in 2016, Baer made allegations of systemic discrimination in Tompkins County government against women and people of color.
“These are serious allegations, which if true would be an affront to county policies and goals,” McCann said.
The county hired an outside attorney, Timothy Taylor, to investigate Baer’s claims. Though Baer was allegedly directed to participate in the investigation, she did not, McCann said.
Baer’s refusal to participate in the investigation is the basis for the county’s charges against her.
However the “snapshot” of Baer’s refusal to take part in the investigation in 2017 is not the full story, Andrew Celli, an attorney for Baer said.
“What is happening here is wrong,” Celli said. He said Baer stands accused of what people throughout history have been accused of: insubordination.
“She stands accused because she spoke her mind and followed her conscience,” Celli said. He said this case is about anger and retaliation.
Baer was hired as director in 2013 after directing the Geneva Human Rights Commission for about 16 years.
Celli said Baer’s story begins in 2015 when there was controversy with the former chair of the Tompkins County Human Rights Commission, Pat Pryor. Celli said some members of the commission were unhappy with Pryor’s leadership. Ultimately, Pryor resigned.
When Pryor resigned, Celli said that was a turning point for the relationship between Baer and her boss, former Tompkins County Administrator Joe Mareane. Celli said she came to believe the Mareane and other legislators were mad at her because of Pryor’s resignation.
As a result, Baer said she was excluded from county initiatives and opportunities, like being involved in choosing a Fair Housing Officer or the ban the box initiative, projects she was already working on through her office.
In November 2015, Baer wrote to Legislature Chair Mike Lane that she could not understand why the HRC decision to replace its chair “created a hostile work environment for me.”
In response to Baer’s complaint of retaliation, the county hired attorney Edward Hooks to investigate. (This is prior to the investigation by Timothy Taylor). Celli said understanding the Hooks investigation is important to understand Baer’s response to the second investigation by Taylor.
Celli said Baer participated in the Hooks investigation by handing over documents and for a face-to-face interview. However, he said during the interview, Hooks “dozed off,” something several other people have attested to. And when the report came out, Celli said Hooks turned the incident around on Baer and attacked her instead.
In July 2016 and October 2016, Baer sent emails to Lane making more specific claims about Tompkins County officials had engaged in retaliation and discrimination against her and her office, particularly against women and people of color.
“Tompkins County government is not a place where you find people using the N-word … Karen Baer never complained that there was racism or retaliation of that kind. … What she described is something much more subtle, much more nuanced, an environment exclusion and hostility towards her,” Celli said.
In January 2017, the county hired Timothy Taylor to investigate her claims. Celli said Taylor and Baer had an initial phone call, during which Baer asked for the investigative procedure he would follow in writing.
Taylor, in testimony Thursday, said he did meet with officials to learn the procedure and attempted to reach Baer back by phone to tell her what the procedure would be, but never received a call back. In his investigation, he said he left several messages that were not returned. He, however, never responded to Baer’s multiple requests for the procedure in writing.
In the report, Taylor wrote: “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.”
Celli said Baer never received the procedure in writing as she had requested. In response to a letter he did send near the end of his investigation, Baer responded “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.”
Witnesses for both sides were called Thursday and Friday, but John McCann, representing Tompkins County asked for several weeks to prepare cross-examination questions for Baer, a highly unusual request.
Celli said that in his 27 years as an attorney, he has never seen or heard of a situation where people are given weeks to prepare questions for a witness.
“That is highly unusual and improper to request tin the middle of a hearing and it is purely (to gain) a tactical advantage,” attorney Zoe Salzman said, who is also working on behalf of Baer.
The decision, however, was in favor of the county.
The hearing is scheduled to resume Jan. 3.
Featured image: Karen Baer, director of the Tompkins County Office of Human Rights speaks during the public comment period of a Tompkins County Legislature meeting. Kelsey O’Connor/Ithaca Voice