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Committee Hears Update on Office of Human Rights Assessment

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Committee Hears Update on Office of Human Rights Assessment

Monday, August 13, 2018

The Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee received an update regarding the comprehensive ongoing assessment of the County’s Office of Human Rights, presented by County Administrator Jason Molino, County Attorney Jonathan Wood, and Dr. Kenneth Clarke, Interim Director of Human Rights. 

It was stressed that the Office stands ready to assist people in accessing the State’s complaint process, providing space and equipment at the Office for filing a complaint. Interim Director Clarke will provide general guidance on filing the complaint; translation service will be available, as needed, with equipment for speech and hearing impaired individuals to be set up soon.  The Office, however, will not represent complainants (since the State has insisted the County refrain from continuing that practice) or make probable cause recommendations (since the County’s Memorandum of Understanding with New York State expired a decade ago and the State is not interested in a new MOU).  Such MOUs are in place with only the large counties of Nassau and Suffolk.

County Attorney Wood noted that New York State has a comprehensive anti-discrimination law, with that the State Division of Human Rights performing complaint intake, investigatory, probable cause determination, hearing, and enforcement functions.  He said only New York State and New York City have such comprehensive human rights laws, and that while having all phases of the process conducted locally would be a convenience to the parties, it would be extremely expensive, inefficient, and duplicative of the State process.  Such an operation, he said, would require the hiring of a considerable amount of staff, duplicating a system used by every County in the state, where all costs are paid by New York State.  The perceived need for local “Ban the Box” legislation and source of income protection legislation are separate issues, and methods and procedures for enforcement would be different than enforcement and processing of claims for discrimination, Wood said.

Interim Director Clarke described the community needs assessment process that has been underway for the past several months and is continuing, stressing that community feedback being received through that process is very important, since it is essential in identifying issues to shape programming needs to be responsive to the community.  Clarke said the issues of affordable housing and housing supply have consistently been mentioned as issues of concern.

Following the presentation, the Committee heard from 15 members of the public, voicing ongoing support for the Office of Human Rights, the valuable service it provides, and its staff, many calling for adoption of a comprehensive local human rights law.  The committee was presented with over 300 petition signatures in support of such a law.  Some speakers also expressed their desire for a robust County Human Rights Commission.

A number of legislators thanked those who spoke for their input, and assured that there is no intent to dismantle the Office of Human Rights, as some speakers had suggested, but instead to make the Office the most effective that it can be.  Committee members asked the County Attorney a number of questions, and Chair Shawna Black requested a future follow-up presentation providing more detail on a comprehensive local human rights law.