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Proposal would add harassment, sexual harassment to county ethics code 

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A proposal by two Monroe County Legislature leaders would change the county’s ethics code to clearly state that the Board of Ethics is to investigate claims of harassment or sexual harassment against county officers and employees.

Under the measure, anyone found to have violated the code can be fined, suspended, removed from their position, or otherwise disciplined.

The legislation was submitted by Republican Majority Leader Steve Brew and Democratic Legislator Vince Felder, who claims the title of the chamber’s minority leader and is recognized as such by Legislature President Joe Carbone. Last August, however, the members of the Democratic Caucus voted to elevate Legislator Yversha Roman to the position and oust Felder.

The county’s Code of Ethics currently lacks any mention of verbal, written or physical harassment, or of sexual harassment. It speaks largely to conflicts of interest, the role of the ethics board in hearing and ruling on complaints about employees, and provides for disciplinary actions such as fines, suspension, or removal.

“By setting out set standards and rules that public officials of our county must abide by, and holding individuals accountable when these codes are broken, our community can have” confidence in their elected representatives and government, read a memo accompanying the legislation.

The Brew-Felder measure would also expand the ethics board to seven members from the current three. Right now, the county executive appoints all members, and the Legislature confirms them. That arrangement would remain under the legislation, but two appointees would be recommended by the Legislature president, and the chamber’s majority and minority leaders would each recommend an appointee. The board members would serve at the pleasure of the county executive.

click to enlarge Steve Brew, the Monroe County Legislature's Republican majority leader. - PHOTO PROVIDED
  • PHOTO PROVIDED
  • Steve Brew, the Monroe County Legislature's Republican majority leader.
"We intended to take the politics out of it all together,” said Brew, who noted that the proposal would also prohibit Board of Ethics members from donating to elected officials or candidates for public office and that it would limit the board to no more than three members of any one political party.

Under the measure, the Board of Ethics would provide any reports it prepares to the County Legislature, which would decide whether to publicly release them. Under current county law, board reports go to the county executive, who can publicly release them.

The legislation would also prohibit “management and professional” class employees from earning outside income without exception. The provision has already stirred up concern among some county workers, including staff at the Public Defender’s Office who teach in their off hours.

Brew said those concerns may warrant revisiting the legislation's language and that the authors "just want to protect the county."

The county Law Department is currently reviewing the legislation, according to county spokesperson Steve Barz.

Democratic Legislator Rachel Barnhart said she has mixed feelings about the proposal but agrees that the Board of Ethics should not be appointed entirely by the county executive and that it should have representatives chosen by legislators. She added that she’d prefer to see the Legislature president pick only one board member, leaving the seventh seat to be filled by an appointee agreed to by Republicans and Democrats.

click to enlarge Democratic County Legislator Rachel Barnhart - PHOTO PROVIDED
  • PHOTO PROVIDED
  • Democratic County Legislator Rachel Barnhart
“An ethics board should not be seen as a political body,” Barnhart said.

Barnhart added that she’s also troubled by the lack of term limits for appointees and plans to introduce an amendment that would establish them.

The legislation follows a proposal submitted by County Executive Adam Bello and Legislature Democrats — including Barnhart — in April that would reform the county’s ethics code.

Under the Democrats’ measure, which the Republican majority has kept tabled, the Board of Ethics would be compelled to investigate accusations of harassment and sexual harassment in county government. That’s something it has in common with the proposal from Brew and Felder.

The county executive would retain the authority to publicly release Board of Ethics reports under the Democrats’ legislation.

Bello and Democratic legislators released their proposal in response to recent claims of sexual harassment that had been lodged against public officials, including Gov. Andrew Cuomo and county Legislator Ernest Flagler-Mitchell.

In June, the Board of Ethics determined that Flagler-Mitchell violated county ethics code when he sent a sexually explicit photo to a 19-year-old woman.

The board had been reviewing the matter since January, when it first received a complaint from the woman, Lakaya Sinclair, that Flagler-Mitchell sent her a Facebook message containing a photo of his genitalia and other messages that made her feel uncomfortable.

Flagler-Mitchell, 43, a retired firefighter and married father of eight children, acknowledged sending the photo but said it was done in error and that the image was meant for his wife, whom he said he had been messaging simultaneously with Sinclair. He has also said that the genitalia pictured was not his.

The Monroe County District Attorney’s Office also looked into Sinclair’s claims against Flagler-Mitchell and provided its findings to the ethics board. Investigators spoke with 11 other women who reported receiving inappropriate or explicit messages and photos from Flagler-Mitchell. The District Attorney’s Office determined that Flagler-Mitchell committed no crime.

On June 7, another woman filed a complaint against Flagler-Mitchell with the state Division of Human Rights. In it, she alleged that she contacted Flagler-Mitchell for help with an unspecified Child Protective Services matter and that on several occasions he made unwanted sexual advances toward her.

No disciplinary action has been taken against Flagler-Mitchell, though he stepped down as leader of the breakaway Black and Asian Democratic Caucus, which has formed an alliance with Legislature Republicans amid a feud with members of the long-standing Democratic Caucus.

Most members of the caucus, including Flagler-Mitchell, lost primaries last month and have been knocked off the November ballot and will leave their seats at the end of the year. Felder, who votes with the caucus but is not a member, also lost his primary and will not appear on the November ballot.

Jeremy Moule is CITY's news editor. He can be reached at jmoule@rochester-citynews.com.

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