”Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,” opens the preamble to the Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations charter.
Saying is easier than doing. The Ulster County Human Rights Commission (HRC) has been embroiled very recently in a heated verbal struggle about the best path to inherent dignity.
At a press conference held on July 11, Ulster County HRC interim director Esi Lewis and county executive Jen Metzger fielded questions. Reiterating her administration’s commitment to transparency, Metzger set out to share “a baseline of understanding of the role and authority of the Human Rights Commission.”
Under state law and the county charter, Metzger explained, the HRC was either to resolve complaints using mediation with the consent of all the parties involved or to refer complaints to the state human-rights division for investigation and resolution.
The reporters asked an array of questions regarding the hunt for a new HRC director, the timelines to replace three resigned directors, whether the resigned commissioners might be reinstated, and what could have been behind the venomous statement released by the trio of defectors over the weekend.
The county executive expressed skepticism about any path for the trio of defectors back to their old roles. “I feel that the statements that they made were not responsible,” said Metzger, “and potentially jeopardize the effectiveness of the commission that they were committed to serve, and uphold.”
Metzger ventured that loyalty to the former commissioner Tyrone Wilson and bruised feelings about his dismissal may have inspired the antipathy. “I feel it was personal feelings that motivated this,” she noted.
Esi Lewis confirmed that the county had declared the commission’s bylaws null and void at the commission meeting in June. “The bylaws that the commission were referring to,” said Lewis, “had not been approved by the county attorney at the time. I did inform the commissioners that those bylaws had not been reviewed by the county attorney and that they were in contradiction to the county charter … which is the governing law.”
Resigned commissioner Carl Brown, made chair of the commission in 2020, was not at the press conference. He has asserted that the Human Rights Commission has been operating under the same bylaws under previous executives Mike Hein and Pat Ryan and had always voted for its own chair.
“They were referring to election of officers,” said Metzger of the situation at the June meeting. The election of officers contradicts the [county] charter, she maintained. “Their bylaws cannot contradict the charter. Any bylaws require a legal review before they’re adopted because it’s a legal document.”
Brown maintains that the charter the commission operated under was voted on and adopted and sent to county lawyers.
Among Metzger’s declared goals going forward is to make sure the commission is reflective of the diversity of protected classes in the county. There is not one Latino community representative on the HRC. Nor is there anyone from the disability community.
Metzger expressed her sentiment that filling the vacancy left by Tyrone Wilson’s dismissal was a top priority. She hopes to have a new director of the commission installed as early as next month freeing Lewis to return to the original job she was hired by the county to do, chief diversity officer.