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New Monroe County ethics laws address outside employment, sexual harassment

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Monroe County legislators have approved a measure intended to strengthen the county’s ethics laws, including a new provision around sexual harassment.

The law requires high-ranking county employees to receive approval for outside employment and to recuse themselves in writing from matters where they have a conflict. It makes clear that county employees are free to support any political candidates, and it prohibits coercing them to work on campaigns or other political activities. It also prohibits the use of county resources for political campaigns.

The legislation was sponsored and introduced by Democratic Legislator Rachel Barnhart and cosponsored by Republican Legislator Mark Johns. It passed unanimously during the Legislature’s meeting Tuesday.

“The county ethics code hadn't changed in a really long time, so it was really important to revisit this and to add these provisions. In my opinion, this is a start,” Barnhart said during an interview Wednesday. “There are other things that we need to do.”

The legislation also specifies that sexual harassment is prohibited conduct for the county’s elected officers, including legislators, and it lays out a process for filing such complaints against the officials.

That became an issue in 2021 when a woman publicly accused Ernest Flagler-Mitchel, a former legislator, of sexually harassing her by sending her a lewd photo and promiscuous messages after they met in September 2020, when she was 19.

Several other women subsequently came forward with similar allegations, and an investigation by the District Attorney’s Office concluded that Flagler-Mitchell had used his standing as a lawmaker, pastor, and retired firefighter to seek out women on social media platforms to engage in “sexually related topics.”

At the time, the county’s ethics codes did not contain a provision that would have allowed the Legislature to strip Flagler-Mitchell of his seat, since it didn’t specifically prohibit sexual harassment. Flagler-Mitchell lost his next election and no longer serves in the Legislature.

Barnhart views the changes as a way to build public trust.

Jeremy Moule is a deputy editor with WXXI News. He also covers Monroe County.