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County legislator seeks release of harassment settlements, Poloncarz says they aren't secret

The Poloncarz administration should release and detail all of the harassment settlements in Erie County government that have been paid for by taxpayer dollars over the past five years, Erie County Legislator Lynne Dixon said Thursday.

But County Executive Mark Poloncarz said they aren't any details to release.

"The County Attorney’s office has conducted an initial review of its records, which did not reveal any lawsuit settlements for sexual harassment in the workplace over the last 5 years," he said in a statement. "Hence, no taxpayer dollars have been used to settle such claims."

In a letter to County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz, Dixon asked that the county ban future settlement of harassment claims with taxpayer money and that confidentiality agreements related to sexual harassment settlements be banned unless requested by the victim.

Dixon said she was motivated to submit the letter in light of the forced resignation of Erie County Social Services Commissioner Al Dirschberger, the growing #MeToo movement sparked by Hollywood sexual harassment claims, and the proposals introduced by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to combat workplace harassment.

"We shouldn't be trying to cover up somebody's bad behavior," said Dixon, I-Hamburg. "This is something we can do on the county level."

Poloncarz responded that if Dixon truly wanted answers to her questions, she should have called the Erie County Attorney’s Office, which would have provided her all the information she required.

His statement went on to say that based on his review:

  • All settlements reached in lawsuits involving Erie County are a matter of public record and are subject to the Freedom of Information Act, so the information is available to anyone who requests it and settlements are not confidential or secret;
  • While the plaintiff/claimant might agree to confidentiality, Erie County is prohibited by law from doing the same;
  • All claims against Erie County are clocked in at the Legislature and are available for any Legislator to see, so if Dixon had actually reviewed these claim reports she would have known what actions have been alleged against Erie County.

Dixon said she is unaware of any additional details regarding Dirschberger beyond what has been made public in news reports. But more broadly, she said, she found it upsetting that the possibility exists for any county money to be spent to settle this type of personal offense against employees.

Social Services head abruptly resigns amid criminal probe

Depending on the response she receives from the County Executive's Office, Dixon said she is prepared to seek co-sponsors for several draft resolutions. The resolutions would seek to compel the administration to release the information from prior harassment claims, ban the spending of county money on settlements, and ban the county's hiring of an outside attorney to defend or settle such claims. The resolutions would also seek to prohibit confidentiality agreements in sexual harassment settlements unless the victim specifically requests it.

Poloncarz responded, "My administration takes the issue of sexual harassment seriously and will continue to take all steps necessary to prevent it in all county workplaces. In the meantime, I hope the Legislator will actually contact my office or the county attorney’s office, or review the applicable report filed with the Legislature, for accurate information before going to the press on an important issue such as this one."

Dixon acknowledged the circumstances surrounding Dirschberger's abrupt resignation was one factor in her desire to push for a change in county policy and request a report on past harassment settlements.

Dirschberger abruptly resigned on Dec. 28 as commissioner of Erie County Department of Social Services at the request of the county executive after it was learned he was under criminal investigation for an incident that allegedly occurred earlier in December involving a subordinate employee at a conference in Albany.

A job posting for his position was issued Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Acting Social Services Commissioner Marie Cannon on Thursday provided the Legislature an update on the leadership and administration of Social Services, the county's largest department. She reassured legislators that the work of the department is continuing without interruptions while the search continues for a new commissioner.

"I am committed to ensuring that the department runs efficiently and effectively in the interim," Cannon said. "I am confident that our department will be able to continue to do this work without missing a beat."

She added that while she never before considered a big department bureaucracy to be an asset, that structure is benefiting the department and keeping it running during the leadership shake-up.

"We will continue to stay on course and to focus on what's important," she said.

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