County executive calls retiring legislator “unfit for public service”

Ulster County Executive Pat Ryan (left) and Ulster County Legislator Hector Rodriguez

“Legislator [Hector] Rodriguez violated the public trust, violated women, and is unfit for public service,” wrote Ulster County Executive Pat Ryan upon receipt last Friday of an independent investigative report from a partner in an Albany law firm addressed to county personnel officer Sheree Cross. Rodriguez’s disturbing actions constituted a gross violation of the public trust, Ryan wrote. Had they involved any member of his administration, they would have led to summary dismissal. 

The letter, signed by Earl T. Redding of Roemer Wallens Gold & Mineaux LLP, recommended corrective action, “including and up to requesting resignation, be taken towards Mr. Rodriguez in any appropriate form as allowed by the law.”

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The veteran New Paltz legislator is not seeking re-election next month to the District 20 seat but according to reports, has as of Wednesday, Oct. 9 refused to resign. Democrat Eve Walter and Republican Donna Smith are contesting the seat. The winner will take office in the first week of January.

“I strongly urge the Ulster County Legislature to take immediate action to publicly condemn legislator Rodriguez’s behavior and use any and all other means available to them to ensure he is held accountable for his actions,” wrote Ryan. “We must make clear to the public that Ulster County has zero tolerance for any form of sexual harassment or discrimination.”

County Legislature chair Tracey Bartels stripped Rodriguez of two committee assignments, Laws and Rules and Ways and Means. “I commend and admire the strength of the women that have come forward and shared their difficult experiences in the face of public scrutiny,” she said in a statement. “Sexual harassment of any kind is unacceptable and will not be tolerated in our county. I condemn Legislator Rodriguez’s behavior to the fullest extent. To that end, I have dismissed him from committee membership within the restrictions of the Legislative Rules immediately. Legislators are working diligently, in a bipartisan manner, to enact even more stringent rules of conduct for all Ulster County Legislators. I commit to seeing that process through.” All legislators must serve on at least one committee, and he will remain a member of the legislature’s Economic Development, Tourism, Housing and Planning Committee

Legislature Majority Leader Jonathan Heppner also cited those who came forward. “I commend the women who participated in the investigation for their courage. There must be zero tolerance for sexual harassment,” he said, and cited his concern for Rodriguez’s constituents. “It is my own belief that it is not in the best interest of Legislator Rodriguez’s district for him to continue in the last few months of his term.”

Apparently, there is no mechanism within the county charter or other branches of law to remove a county legislator for such behavior. In these instances, the body must defer to Public Officers Law, where the only grounds for removal are conviction of a felony.

Directly warned

Ryan, who is seeking re-election himself this November, running against Republican Jack Hayes, said that “public servants — and especially elected officials — must hold themselves to the absolute highest standards of integrity and professional conduct in order to safeguard the public’s trust.”

Rodriguez had been “directly warned” about his behavior in May 2014 by female employees at Golden Hill rehab center, according to the letter to Cross. The corrective action said that he refrain “from making sexual advances, propositions, flirtations, or repeated request.” At that time, wrote Redding, “Mr. Rodriguez was aware that his behavior needed to change.”

The Albany law firm’s work involved interviews with KT Tobin, New Paltz village deputy mayor who had inquired about an investigation; with three county legislators; with seven women who had found Rodriguez’ attentions troubling or harassing, and with one other individual who later asked not to be a part of any report. 

Several of the subjects said they believed they needed to continue working with Rodriguez because of his position as a public official. The investigator expressed the view that all the women were found to be credible in their statements. 

Despite several requests and email communications, Rodriguez declined to participate in the investigation. It was attorney Redding’s opinion “that an adverse opinion be drawn.”

Reacting to Ryan’s statement, New Paltz’s village board called for Rodriguez’s resignation as a county legislator but stopped short of telling the legislature to remove him. “Based on the independent investigation into the conduct of Mr. Rodriguez, it is of our opinion that Mr. Rodriguez should resign from his position on the county legislature,” the village board opined. “His conduct is far beneath what the public rightly expects and deserves from their elected representatives, and we believe that his repeated inappropriate actions make him unable to effectively represent the residents of the Village of New Paltz.”  

The New Paltz Democratic Women issued a statement Monday, Oct. 7 saying their organization agreed with Ryan, the county Democratic Party and the New Paltz village board that it was time for Rodriguez to resign, and not just from the legislature. “We also ask for his resignation from both the local New Paltz Democratic Committee and the New York State Democratic Committee,” the organization said.

Rodriguez’s term, his eighth, ends Dec. 31.

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