How many discrimination and harassment claims has Erie County government faced in the last five years? And did public money get spent to settle them?
The short answer from the County Attorney's Office is unaware of sexual harassment settlements over the past five years involving a superior and subordinate, but the county administration has been the target of many discrimination complaints, some of which have required the use of outside attorneys and, ultimately, settlements.
But First Assistant County Attorney Michelle Parker stressed that no claims or settlements are confidential.
"There is zero secrecy associated with claims against the county," she said. "There is zero secrecy associated with money spent on claims against the county."
The issue of harassment claims has been a hot topic given the #MeToo movement at the national level, the exposure of millions in payouts to settle harassment and discrimination claims at the state level, and the current indictment against former Social Services Commissioner Al Dirchberger on rape charges.
Legislature Minority Leader Joseph Lorigo brandished a document highlighting more than two dozen discrimination complaints from the past two years, including ones where employees said they were subject to sexually and racially demeaning comments.
"I'm troubled by the amount of discrimination claims and how they're handled," he said.
Legislators discussed a proposal Thursday that would require the county administration to produce a report regarding all claims and settlements related to harassment and discrimination in county government over the past five years. The other proposal would ban the use of public money to settle harassment claims.
Both proposals were tabled, though Finance and Management Committee Chairwoman Barbara Miller-Williams said she would like the matter to be discussed further at a future meeting. Democrats on the Finance and Management Committee originally defeated the proposal to ban use of public money to settle harassment claims but reconsidered.
Legislator Lynne Dixon, I-Hamburg, and Lorigo, C-West Seneca, said the unwillingness of their Democratic Legislature colleagues to support a proposal to prevent public money from being spent on harassment settlements was "mind boggling."
Dixon pointed out that state and federal government leaders are already looking at how to restrict public funds for settlements involving such claims.
Chairman Peter Savage said he supports the intent of the legislation, but the county is not legally allowed to refuse to address and resolve such claims. If the county refuses to settle such matters, where county employees may be at fault, that does not prevent such cases from moving forward and going to trial. Refusal to pay could lead to a charge of contempt by a judge.
"The county cannot draft a policy that circumvents state law," he said.
He asked that both sides of the aisle work together to seek a change in state law that would allow local governments to deny the expenditure of public money for harassment cases. He also said the county should uncover the root causes of these cases and ensure that employees who engage in discriminatory or harassing behavior be appropriately punished.
Lorigo said the resolution put forward by the minority caucus simply asks that the County Attorney's Office draft a policy that would best enable the county to avoid spending public money for harassment settlements. Savage responded that the County Attorney's Office doesn't have that ability under the law.