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New county policy curbs use of public money to settle harassment suits

Erie County government has established a new policy forbidding the spending of public money to settle harassment suits against county employees who engage in "intentional wrongdoing or recklessness" or engage in harassment while on the job. The county may be required to defend an employee but would not have to pay out legal damages or settlement money in such circumstances.

This policy reiterates what is already legally permissible under state law, said County Attorney Michael Siragusa.

But it goes a step further by requiring the county attorney to investigate whether an individual offender can be legally forced to repay the county for its expenses if Erie County is named as a co-defendant and must settle a harassment case because of an individual's actions.

The new policy comes on the heels of a legal notice to the county from a woman who alleged she was raped by former Social Services Commissioner Al Dirschberger in December. The complaint against the county states that county administrators were aware of previous sexual harrassment complaints against him but did not take proper action against him.

The issue of harassment claims has also been a hot topic since the rise of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements 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 Dirschberger on rape charges.

County Legislator Lynne Dixon, I-Hamburg, who introduced the resolution to ban the use of public money for harassment settlements, expressed her appreciation for the revised policy. She wants County Executive Mark Poloncarz to institute the revised policy as soon as possible. The county responded that the new policy is in effect now.

“I believe the policy achieves the goals I was hoping for," Dixon said in a statement. "It protects the rights of victims and their ability to get the restitution they deserve, and it protects taxpayers because it holds accountable county employees that discriminate or harass in the workplace."

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