By Mark C. Poloncarz
Special to the News
The question of whether a government has entered into a confidential settlement regarding a sexual harassment claim is a legitimate issue to explore. However, as I explain herein, it is not an issue in Erie County and a recent Buffalo News editorial implying it is was wrong.
Recently, my office received a letter from Erie County Legislator Lynne Dixon requesting information on confidential settlements reached in sexual harassment lawsuits against Erie County. If the legislator’s goal was to play the media into following along while she garnered attention for a non-issue, she was successful; if her goal was better governance, she failed abjectly. I write today to set the record straight and provide context regarding the legislator’s request and the way it was covered in the media.
On Jan. 11, in the late morning hours, the above-mentioned letter was hand-delivered to my office in the Rath Building. I mention this because the letter, which bore a date of Jan. 5, was already in the hands of local media, and my administration was being asked to comment on a letter we had not yet received. I don’t know why it would take six days for a letter to be hand-delivered from the Legislature’s chambers across the street to my office, or why local media would have the letter beforehand, unless the legislator was more interested in getting publicity than the truth.
If the legislator had chosen instead to contact the Erie County Attorney’s Office before engaging in this stunt, she would have learned that 1.) all settlements reached in lawsuits involving Erie County are a matter of public record and are subject to the Freedom of Information Law; 2.) settlements are not confidential or secret; 3.) all claims against Erie County are clocked in at the Legislature and are available for any legislator to review; 4.) all settlement payments are paid through and/or reported to the Erie County Comptroller’s Office, and 5.) the County Attorney’s Office initial review of cases going back the requested five years revealed no instances of any settlement paid with taxpayer dollars for sexual harassment.
It is disappointing to find out that a legislator who has served for four terms was apparently unaware of the rules associated with such an important issue.
Just as dismaying, The News chose to publish an editorial based on the legislator’s publicity stunt, a stunt that was shown to be incorrect. The editorial stated: “[T]hat a county legislator even has to ask for the information demonstrates government’s disrespect for taxpayers and an unserious attitude toward misconduct.” In truth, the disrespect is not toward the taxpayers but to those in Erie County government who take all types of harassment very seriously.
Erie County requires all personnel to participate in harassment training as part of employment. Violations of the county harassment policy are responded to and addressed in a timely and legal manner. If a claim is filed against Erie County, it will be dealt with, but not confidentially. There are no exceptions to these rules that govern county employment.
Elected officials serve the public and must do so in a transparent, accountable and legal way that demonstrates how government is supposed to work. While it seems that numerous cases of sexual harassment have been settled with taxpayer funds elsewhere, there is no evidence of it happening here. To insinuate that county government is hiding something is wrong and diminishes the public’s trust. Elected officials and the media need to work harder to ensure that they have all the information before making baseless allegations.
Mark C. Poloncarz is Erie County executive.