Ithaca, N.Y. – About 40 people gathered outside the Office of Human Rights Tuesday to protest changes to the agency. The Tompkins County 2019 recommended budget proposes cutting a staff position and moving OHR to a new location. Demonstrators said such changes would gut the office and hurt residents who rely on its services.
OHR is the county’s civil rights enforcement agency and is tasked with helping residents file complaints of discrimination. Staff work with people who have experienced discrimination to submit complaints to the New York State Division of Human Rights.
OHR currently has a full-time staff of four, including a paralegal aide responsible for guiding clients through the complaint process. The county’s 2019 budget proposes cutting the paralegal aide position and reallocating funding from the position to programming, such as educational outreach.
At Tuesday’s rally, speakers described the current paralegal aide, Xavier Rusk, as integral to OHR’s work. “The proposed budget has defunded one of OHR’s most dedicated staff members,” said organizer Russell Rickford. He said Rusk has the experience to file complaints effectively and the heart to listen empathetically to people who have been discriminated against.
Rusk explained to the crowd how complex it is to file a complaint. He said OHR needs a paralegal on staff who can help people translate their personal stories into legal documents.
“This work is not easy. It is complex. It is difficult if you’re a lay person trying to go through all this. We need this office to be stronger,” Rusk said.
County administrator Jason Molino said Rusk has been offered a position in another department and that the OHR director will absorb much of the paralegal position’s duties, including working with clients to file complaints to the state. The reorganization, according to Molino, better aligns with the office’s functions.
Speakers at the rally reiterated longstanding concerns about the direction OHR is moving in, however, alongside new issues brought up by the 2019 recommended budget.
Last April, Tompkins County dismissed OHR’s director, Karen Baer, after a contentious, years-long disagreement. Several speakers Tuesday were still upset by the move and called for Baer’s reinstatement.
In addition, a 2008 decision by the state reduced the county OHR’s authority to investigate local claims of discrimination. Baer had pushed to expand OHR’s ability to investigate local claims, a position that several speakers at the rally supported. Molino has said the county is not trying to restore local authority because doing so would be costly and would duplicate state processes.
Demonstrators said that changes over time have combined to limit OHR’s ability to protect workers, renters, small business owners, and others from exploitation throughout the county. Rickford said, “I cannot believe that here in Tompkins County we’re moving backwards on human rights.”
Jamila Walida Simon, a former county Human Rights Commissioner, said changes to OHR’s authority and budget have made it ineffective. She told the group about her own experience of racial discrimination, saying she found doors closed to her when she tried to open a business near the Ithaca Commons.
“The only open door I had was right here at this office,” Simon said. “Now these doors are closed,” she said, peering through the office’s window. “The people inside there right now are not able to do their jobs.”
Several speakers voiced concerns about plans to move OHR from its current storefront to the Human Services Annex building at 214 W. Martin Luther King, Jr./State St.
Local farmer and activist Rafael Aponte said the move was in keeping with a trend of development pushing people of color and working people to the outskirts of the community. He asked of the county, “We’re growing, but who are we making space for?”
The 2019 recommended budget says the relocation will bring OHR into ADA compliance and will cut costs. The county pays $30,000 per year to lease the office’s current space. Molino said the move would increase the OHR’s accessibility and efficiency.
Dr. Kenneth Clarke, who was appointed director of OHR following Baer’s dismissal, answered questions from the crowd. He started by addressing critiques. “Our office is not closing, it is not being defunded, our budget is not being cut,” he said.
While the 2019 recommended budget cuts the paralegal aide position, funds from the position are staying within the department. The 2019 recommended budget does not cut overall funding to OHR.
Clarke said OHR continues to help clients file complaints, even though they are now directed to use a computer station in the office. “It is not a soulless kiosk,” he said, noting that he sits with clients at the station to walk them through the process. Clarke said when residents come into the office he approaches them with empathy and care, and said he is committed to expanding OHR’s educational outreach.
Many attendees, however, demanded more comprehensive and concrete changes. Fabina Colon, director of the Multicultural Resource Center, said, “We need to start connecting the dots, looking at the roots of why this pattern continues.” She said it was time for the community to use its creativity to change “processes that are in place for the purpose to exclude and protect business as usual.”
The rally closed with a call to action. “Show up at county meetings to address our officials and, more importantly, to embody our outrage,” Rickford said to the crowd.
The 2019 recommended budget will be discussed at the Expanded Budget Committee meeting on Oct. 1 at 5:30 p.m. at County Legislature Chambers.
Featured image: Rafael Aponte addresses crowd at Tuesday’s rally outside the Office of Human Rights. (Devon Magliozzi/The Ithaca Voice)