New Ulster County law targets discrimination

County Executive Mike Hein signs the law strengthening Ulster’s Human Rights Commission.

With the passage of Local Law No. 4 of 2018, officially approved by County Executive Mike Hein at Kingston’s A.J. Williams Myers African Roots Library in September, Ulster has taken a significant step in protecting all citizens, including those identifying as transgender, against discrimination.

Previously, people who’d experienced discrimination regarding employment, housing, an application for a bank loan or access to a bathroom, store, hotel or other place of public accommodation had to travel to Albany to have their case heard. But now the Ulster County Human Rights Protection Act of 2018, as it is officially called, allows the complainant to request a hearing before a specially appointed administrative hearing officer right here in the county. The judge can award the person who’s experienced discrimination up to $25,000 in damages.

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People who claim they’ve been discriminated against are required to file a complaint with the 11-member Ulster County Human Rights Commission (UCHRC), which oversees such cases but in the past “really had no teeth,” according to Evelyn Clarke. Clarke, who was the county’s human rights commissioner from 2010 until this past May, when former Kingston alderwoman Nina Dawson took over, said when there was a complaint, “basically it was me talking with people to point out that what they did was discriminatory and against the human rights law, but I didn’t have any power.” (Her intervention was nonetheless effective at times. For example, when a man from East Asia who worked as a cleaner at a QuickChek was fired by a shift manager without cause, he got his job back after Clarke contacted the corporate office.) The problem with referring people seeking damages to the state Human Rights Commission in Albany was, Clarke said, that “mostly people weren’t interested in going that route. This new law puts the ball right here in Ulster County.”

The law states the following: “The Ulster County Legislature recognizes, finds and determines that the laws and regulations of the United States of America and the State of New York prohibit acts of discrimination, including discrimination in employment, discrimination in public accommodations, resort and amusement, discrimination in housing accommodation, discrimination in commercial space and land transactions, and discrimination in the issuing of credit based upon impermissible considerations relating to a person’s race, color, religion, ethnicity, creed, age, national origin, alienage or citizenship status, familial status, gender, including gender identity, gender dysphoria, transgender status, group identity, marital status, sexual orientation or disability.”

Under the new law, an independent administrative hearing officer will be appointed by the county executive to hear complaints about discrimination. The hearing officer has the power to require witnesses to appear for the hearing and issue subpoenas for documentary evidence. The law specifies the factors that help determine the amount of damages, if any, that will be paid directly to the complainant should the hearing officer determine there is liability.  If the complainant is pursuing damages in excess of $25,000, he or she would have to go to the state Human Rights Commission. (County Legislator Hector Rodriguez, Democrat of New Paltz, said class-action cases or instances of a blatant repeat offender would typically be brought to Albany.) 

More effective if kept local

The ability to pursue the complaint locally “is an option that may be preferred for several reasons,” said Jeff Rindler, executive director of the Hudson Valley LBGTQ Center, based in Kingston, and a commission member. “Very often the victims are people of lesser means, so it could be cost-prohibitive and very daunting [for them to travel to Albany] and they might just walk away. We don’t want them to be challenged by a system that’s difficult for them to navigate.”

The law strongly encourages the two parties to first pursue mediation. “The idea was to have a restorative justice model, in which both parties come together and look for ways to resolve an issue,” said Rindler, who was a member of the task force that helped craft the bill. “The individual in the wrong would participate or do something that was restorative, rather than punitive. 

“I personally call it ‘taking care of our own’ human rights law,” Rindler added. The law also provides funds “for a liaison to help walk people through the process.” It requires the legislature to appropriate funds up to $10,000 annually to cover the cost of a referral of a complaint to “an accredited community dispute resolution center,” as the bill terms it, in the event that commission members for some reason, such as conflict of interest, are unable to provide mediation or conciliation services. (The law does not, however, provide funds for legal services.)

Once the commission is contacted by a complainant, “we review the complaints and then either say, ‘Yes, we’re moving ahead on this’ or we try to get people referrals” for non-discriminatory cases related instead to civil or criminal issues, Rindler said. “If it’s a ‘yes,’ those trained in mediation would contact both parties and set up a meeting with one of us or a mediator.” There are no costs to either party (unless of course the hearing officer awards damages). 

Former Ulster County legislator Jennifer Schwartz Berky, who introduced an earlier iteration of a human rights bill that specifically addressed gender-based discrimination in 2016, while she was serving in the legislature, said one problem with taking one’s case to Albany is that the state Human Rights Commission “would only hear a very small fraction of cases, and it could take years” to get any kind of redress. Schwartz Berky said she was motivated to introduce the legislation because she “saw human rights violations in the transgender community which hands down is the most vulnerable community in the U.S. I didn’t think of it as a bathroom bill. It’s about making sure people are able to get housing, services, jobs and loans.” 

That law was withdrawn because “although the spirit of the law was great, there were challenges around how it was written,” Rindler recalled. A second human rights bill that “was very comprehensive” and modeled after the law adopted in Westchester County was proposed by Rodriguez, but that law was also withdrawn because “it was budget prohibitive,” according to Rindler, who noted Ulster’s budget is significantly smaller than Westchester’s. 

A compromise bill was then introduced and passed unanimously. Unlike the state human rights bill, it specifically addresses transgender discrimination (although Rodriguez said he expected the state law to be modified to include transgender people now that the Senate has a Democratic majority). Rodriguez praised the legislation as “one of the signature things that we did this past year. We’ve all put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into this.”

To help move the process along, legislature Chairman Ken Ronk, Republican of Wallkill, put together a bipartisan task force with people from the commission, the LBGTQ community, NAACP, local churches and two members of the legislature. “I give Ken Ronk credit for pulling us together,” said Rindler. “My feeling is that on a federal level, we’re kind of screwed, which is why it’s so important to work locally.”

The bill’s passage actually caps off a decades-long effort. “It took a long time,” noted Clarke. “Past commissions pushed hard, and finally the time has come.” 

A long time coming

In the early 1990s, such committed activists as Gayle McGovern, who died in 2011, were laying the groundwork for social change. 

The UCHRC, which was originally called the Ulster County Human Relations Commission, was launched in 1988, but it wasn’t until 1991 that funding was provided to hire the county’s first human rights commissioner, Lucy Honig, who was a writer, teacher and activist. Honig, who died in 2017, was instrumental in pushing for legislation that would address discrimination based on sexual orientation, according to Kingston business owner Richard Frumess, who had an 11-year relationship with Honig. Honig served as commissioner until 1995 and went on to teach academic writing at the Boston University School of Public Health as well as to research staff at Harvard Medical School and researchers in Africa, Estonia, and at the World Health Organization. Her book, The Truly Needy and Other Stories, won the Drue Heinz Literary Prize from the University of Pittsburgh. 

According to Ken Stephens, a Legal Aid lawyer who served as commission chair for several terms, that initial law failed to pass by one vote after “a very heated and contentious debate … at the time there were very noxious attitudes expressed toward gay people. Ulster County has a long history of addressing the issues surrounding the rights of people who are gay. The bill that passed in September is the culmination of a long struggle.”

Some of the cases that came before the commission “involved employment. There was some proactive work around trying to address issues of race,” Stephens recalled. “There was a heavy emphasis on building human relations, which we would now call ‘cultural diversity awareness,’” a topic that seems no less pertinent today.

And now, teaching people about it

Although the measure is now law, more is needed for it to be effective. “The big part now is education, making sure people know they can bring an action against an offending party,” said Rodriguez. The commission is still ironing out “processes we need to create” to meet the law’s requirements, said Rindler. It plans to hold meetings in the next couple of months “for people to come and learn what we do and stay afterwards if they have a complaint,” he said. 

“We do not get many calls, but I think that may be because members of not just our [LBGTQ] community but many people of color, immigrants, and people of Indian descent suck it up,” he added. “It’s happened for so many years that [discrimination] becomes part of that person’s experience. People don’t realize we have this resource.”

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