Should Erie County release details of all harassment settlements paid by taxpayers because of the misconduct of government employees? Should motorists stop at red lights?
The answer to each question is equally obvious. That a county legislator even has to ask for the information demonstrates government’s disrespect for taxpayers and an unserious attitude toward misconduct.
As Americans have been forced to acknowledge in recent months, the problem is pervasive, not just here but around the country. Dealing with it begins with exposure: a willingness by victims to speak up and a refusal by governments to shield the identities of those whose improper actions create liability for taxpayers.
It is, thankfully, a different world today than it was just a few months ago, before the New York Times shone a spotlight on the execrable conduct of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, formerly of Buffalo. Since then, increasing numbers of women – and a few men – have been emboldened to report credible accounts of abuse, running the gamut of forced kissing to unwanted groping to rape.
It strains credulity to suggest that the new awareness will forever alter the behavior of men bent on exploiting their power. Some people ignore all traffic lights.
But what has undeniably changed is the balance of power. Those who would abuse others can no longer take for granted that their status will shield them from the consequences of their misconduct. That’s progress and it needs to be extended.
But this isn’t a problem unique to Hollywood or Washington or Albany. It’s not about entertainers or politicians. It’s about power. Some fields may be more or less prone to exploitation, but there is no reason to believe it isn’t happening in Erie County or any of the municipalities it contains.
But government is a special case because when someone is held accountable for misconduct, it is usually taxpayers who are on the hook. They have a right to know how many of their dollars are being used to settle allegations of misconduct and which public employees are responsible for the expense.
That is what Erie County Legislator Lynne Dixon is seeking. On Thursday she called on the administration of County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz to provide details of all taxpayer-borne settlements over the past five years. In addition, she asked that the county prohibit settlement of future harassment claims, unless requested otherwise by the victim.
Even in that case, though, taxpayers need to know how much was paid out and to settle what kind of misconduct. When possible, the public employee should be identified, even if the victim’s identity is protected.
To be sure, such a policy is likely to produce unintended consequences. For example, some accused abusers would be less likely to settle a claim if they knew they were going to be outed, anyway. That could force their victims into public settings to secure compensation for what could be lost employment or diminished possibilities, piling stress upon stress.
Still, the policy would also go a long way toward discouraging the conduct in the first place. And, superceding it all, there can be no defense for a blanket policy of picking taxpayers’ pockets while shielding public employees from the consequences of gross misconduct. It’s the taxpayers’ money.
Weinstein reportedly was able to continue his intolerable behavior for decades because he had the money and power to intimidate his victims. It’s important now to take that power away.
Exposure will go a long way toward accomplishing that. Erie County and all of its municipalities should do as Dixon suggests.