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Proposals to report harassment claims, block public money for settlements stall in Legislature

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Michael Mroziak, WBFO
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Erie County lawmakers discussed two bills Thursday related to harassment cases against county employees. One of the proposals is to prevent the use of public dollars to fund harassment settlement cases.

With a now former county department head, ex-Social Services Commissioner Dirschberger, facing rape and criminal sex act counts in an Albany case involving a subordinate, members of the Legislature's minority caucus want to know how many harassment or discrimination cases have involved county employees in recent years, how many were settled and whether public dollars were used to fund those settlements.

"Just last week, the state came out saying $10 million was spent, in recent years, on settlements of this nature," said Legislator Lynne Dixon. "The federal government has come out pretty strongly against using taxpayer funds, too. I think in the times were living in, we need to be as transparent as we possibly can."

Two bills are now under consideration. One would ban the use of tax dollars to fund settlements. The other would require the county administration to prepare a report disclosing how many harassment and discrimination claims have been brought up over the past five years.

Both bills were tabled for further discussion but not before First Assistant County Attorney Michelle Parker faced questions at the Legislature's Finance and Management Committee meeting Thursday. Phillips was that since she took her position in 2012, there have been no settlements to her knowledge.

She acknowledged that several discrimination complaints have been made but they do not always lead to litigation. Phillips also told lawmakers that the information they desire in one of their proposals is already available if they simply search.

"Everything that the county does is public," she said. "Even if a party asked me to engage in a confidentiality clause, I can't because everything we spend is a matter of public record."

Dixon asked Phillips during her testimony, "if it's so easy to access them, or to provide them, why won't the county provide that information?"

Phillips' response: "We have not declined to provide any information."

Democrats on the committee originally planned to reject the proposal banning public funding for paying harassment settlements. They argued that while they agree with the principle, the county could face contempt charges if they refuse to resolve such cases.

But they changed their mind and instead voted to discuss the proposal further.

Michael Mroziak is an experienced, award-winning reporter whose career includes work in broadcast and print media. When he joined the WBFO news staff in April 2015, it was a return to both the radio station and to Horizons Plaza.
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