Suspended By County, Human Rights Director Claims Retaliation

Categories Ithaca, Politics

By Josh Brokaw

On Friday, October 13, Karen Baer, director of the Office of Human Rights for Tompkins County, was placed on an unpaid suspension for 30 days as the “county pursues its option to dismiss [Baer] from the service of the County.”

Reports and rumors about Baer’s dismissal have been circulating for more than a week. An official statement was read at the October 17 Tompkins County Legislature meeting by chairperson Michael Lane (D-Dryden), stating that “Baer is on leave,” that reports she was escorted from her office by a sheriff’s deputy were incorrect, and that the leave was “not a result” of an a September 26 opinion piece by Baer run on the Ithaca Voice.

That opinion piece, which listed specific, anonymized comments made or reported to Baer about her office’s work from county officials, was released the same day as Baer made her department budget presentation to the county legislature. Baer read this slide of her presentation nearly verbatim to the legislature, expressing frustration with the county not using the Office of Human Rights for trainings and tracing the conflict back to 2015.

p 16 baer rpesentation

This reporter first saw a report of Baer’s suspension or dismissal last Tuesday, October 17, on Facebook, from Human Rights Commission member Ana Ortiz.

Ortiz told me that she was at the Office of Human Rights when the county human resources representatives came in on that Friday. “She said ‘I have to go,'” Ortiz said of Baer. It was Ortiz’s understanding that a sheriff’s escort was offered to Baer for her to pick up a county-owned laptop.

Further requests to involved parties for comment went unanswered until this Tuesday, October 24, when one of Baer’s attorneys, Zoe Salzman, of Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady LLP, sent local media outlets several documents. Those included the three-page list of charges against Baer made by the county, signed by Lane, on county legislature letterhead; Baer’s legal response, dated October 25; and a personal statement from the Human Rights director.

Update, October 26: Scroll to end of page to see these three documents in full.

Karen Baer. Photo via Facebook.

Here’s the full personal statement provided by Baer:

Since coming to Tompkins County, I have done everything in my power to address the problems of racism and sexism as they exist here, and to manage the Office of Human Rights in the most effective and efficient way possible.
The action by the County Legislature on October 13th in removing me from my post is unwarranted and unfair. I believe it was taken in retaliation for my repeated efforts to speak truth to power and to shine a light in dark corners.
After a long struggle, I look forward to finally being able to share my story and tell it in my own words. I intend to fight this action legally, not merely to save my job, but more importantly to vindicate the principle that our system needs thoughtful critics and fearless investigators. Without them, no meaningful progress can be made and the working conditions for other County employees will never improve.


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The Tompkins County legislature chambers during a June 2017 IDA meeting. Photo: Josh Brokaw/TruthSayers

Three charges are being “preferred” against Baer by the county, as the county must make a case against her under civil service law. The first charge is that Baer has “FAILED AND REFUSED TO FULFILL THE FULL RANGE OF YOUR RESPONSIBILITIES AS DIRECTOR OF HUMAN RIGHTS FOR THE ADMINISTRATION AND ENFORCEMENT OF EQUAL OPPORTUNITY LAWS, REGULATIONS, AND POLICIES.” (all caps in the original.)

Specifics of the charge state that Baer made allegations between July 2016 and October 2016 “that Tompkins County officials engaged in retaliation and discrimination against women and people of color.” The legislature “retained an independent investigator” but Baer “failed and refused to cooperate in the investigation conducted the the direction of the Tompkins County Legislature,” the charge claims.

In Baer’s response, her attorneys state that Baer made “repeated requests for information about what the process would be and how her rights would be protected” to the investigator. A previous report made in 2016 by a private lawyer-investigator, initiated to investigate conflicts between human rights commissioners in 2015, was “designed to fault Ms. Baer, deride her concerns about racism, and ratify the status quo, leaving Ms. Baer and her fellow employees of color to face additional discrimination and retaliation without protection,” the attorneys write.

The charges also allege that Baer’s resignation from the Workforce Diversity and Inclusion committee in June 2017 and non-attendance “compliance committee” meetings focused on equal opportunity laws, regulations and policies are neglectful of her duties. Baer’s attorneys respond that both committees were volunteer commitments, and in the case of the compliance committee, is beyond the 18 month statute of limitations for cause in civil service disputes.

The last charge from the county is that Baer “created a dysfunctional environment” in the relationship between the county and the Office of Human Rights. That’s based on the 2017 investigator’s findings that Baer’s “conduct in making such allegations while refusing to participate in the investigation has created a dysfunctional environment and delegitimized” OHR.

This is Baer’s response to that claim: “Without any evidence or explanation, this charge repeats the County’s outside lawyer’s baseless assertion that Ms. Baer has created a “dysfunctional environment” at OHR. Tellingly,not a single example is provided of the alleged “dysfunctional environment.”

Since Baer’s suspension, a new Facebook page called “Bringing Human Rights Home” has been created calling for “WOKE write-in candidates” for the county legislature who will support OHR and Baer.

A petition is also being circulated to institute a “fair and transparent” complaint process for county employees and to reinstate Baer.

Under New York law, Baer will be entitled to a hearing on the charges. That hearing date has not been set.

If you have more information on this story, contact Josh Brokaw at josh.brokaw@Truthsayers.org.


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Josh Brokaw is an independent reporter based in Ithaca, N.Y.

Email josh.brokaw@truthsayers.org with tips, story suggestions, and gentle criticism.

Twitter: @jdbrokaw