TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y. — Since October, the Tompkins County Office of Human Rights has been without a director after Karen Baer was suspended and charged with not fulfilling her duties as director and creating a dysfunctional environment.
Though it’s still undecided what the county will choose to do, a hearing officer has found that Baer did not create a dysfunctional environment, but he did find her guilty of other charges. The hearing officer Murry Solomon said there should be some recourse for Baer, but did not recommend she be terminated.
The story leading up to the recent decision is long. A report related to the investigations leading up to the charges is here. And a summary from the hearing is here.
The short version is that in October, Tompkins County brought three charges against Baer after an investigation was conducted into claims she made of discrimination and retaliation. She was charged with not fulfilling her duties as director, being insubordinate by refusing to participate in the investigation and creating a dysfunctional environment.
Baer denied the charges against her. In the hearing and in subsequent statements, Baer made it clear she did not participate in the investigation because her terms were not met by the investigator, terms she requested because she had concerns with how a previous investigation had been handled.
To examine the three charges, a public Section 75 New York Civil Service Law hearing took place in December. Baer, Taylor and several county officials including Legislator Mike Lane, former Deputy County Administrator Paula Younger testified.
A key issue examined in the case was why Baer did not participate in Taylor’s investigation into the claims she made of discrimination and exclusion.
In a 42-page decision, the hearing officer acknowledged that Baer had serious concerns about how a previous investigation into her claims was handled. Baer felt the first investigator was biased against her and others of color and also said he fell asleep during his interview with her.
During the hearing, Baer and her defense said she did talk to Taylor at the beginning of his investigation and she requested an explanation in writing on how the investigation would be conducted. Taylor said he tried to call Baer back multiple times, but she never responded. However, Taylor also did not ever provide what she requested in writing.
Solomon said Baer should have known that not returning Tylor’s repeated phone calls was unacceptable. Her failure to follow a “reasonable directive,” he continued “warrants an appropriate measure of discipline.”
At the hearing, Solomon said he was looking for but did not see Baer concede or recognize “that she could possibly be at least partially at fault by not returning Mr. Taylor’s phone calls or anything else.” Instead, Solomon said she vilified legislators and the investigators and former county administrator.
“She remains unapologetic, much less unremorseful,” Solomon states.
He said her defense may have gained some traction if she returned Taylor’s calls and meaningful differences remained after civil conversation.
Despite not interviewing Baer, Taylor continued with his investigation into claims she made. He 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.”
He ultimately concluded her claims were unfounded, and went further to say her refusal to participate in the investigation created a “dysfunctional environment” and her behavior “completely deligitimized the work of the OHR.”
Solomon said while he understand’s Taylor’s frustration, there is not enough evidence to support that the Office of Human Rights is dysfunctional or has been deligitimized and in fact, under Baer’s tenure, said the office has “concluded many worthwhile endeavors.”
He noted a list of accomplishments by Baer, such as drafting a local laws to protect citizens’ rights and creating education and outreach programs. Solomon said, “In sum, Ms. Baer’s contributions to the Office of Human Rights and to protecting Human Rights of Tompkins County residents cannot be overstated.”
Since her suspension, Baer has a lot of support from the community. Many came to support her during the public hearing, and others have spoken up at Tompkins County Legislature meetings.
In a statement, Baer said the hearing was a welcome opportunity to share her story and she is eager to reunite with her staff.
“The hearing process provided a welcome opportunity to share my story with the public; and I am glad that the hearing officer’s decision makes it clear that the Office of Human Rights is not dysfunctional and that nothing I did justifies my termination. I am eager to reunite with my staff and move forward with the new Administrator and Legislature in what I hope will be a shared goal of promoting and protecting human rights for everyone living in Tompkins County,” Baer said.
Though Solomon did not find merit to the charge that Baer had created a dysfunctional environment, he did find other charges valid. He also did not believe there was any conspiracy against Baer.
He said there was no “meaningful evidence, whatsoever, that the investigation was contrived theater or a sham to entrap Ms. Baer.” To the contrary, he said he was persuaded the county governing body took her allegations of discrimination seriously and acted responsibly by hiring two independent investigators.
He said Legislature had “legitimate, non retaliatory, non-discriminatory probable cause to file the charges.”
Solomon said he was satisfied that Baer is guilty of failing and refusing to fulfill the full range of responsibilities as director. Specifically, he pointed to the fact she had resigned from the Workforce Diversity and Inclusion Committee and that she refused to cooperate with the county’s investigation.
Solomon said he understands Baer may be suspicious about his objectivity because like the investigators, he was paid by the county. But, he said “I take my job seriously and I draw my analysis and conclusion not based upon who is paying me, but rather my honest assessment of the credible evidence.”
He recommended the county reconsider its decision to discharge Baer. He also recommended that in addition to the one month suspension from work without pay, Baer serve an additional unpaid one-month suspension.
“Ms. Baer is not exonerated simply because I am not recommending that she be discharged from service. Rather, her behavior is not acceptable nor justified and she must accept the fact that she is herewith on notice. Karen Baer has been found guilty to the extent of the decision,” Solomon wrote.
While Baer has been suspended, a special adviser has been appointed to the Office of Human Rights.
With this report in hand, the Tompkins County administrator will review the report and make a decision regarding the matter, according to Marcia Lynch, public information officer for Tompkins County said.
The full decision is available here.
Featured image: Karen Baer, director of the Tompkins County Office of Human Rights. Kelsey O’Connor/Ithaca Voice