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Monroe County lawmakers to receive confidential briefings on Mendoza departure

Dr. Michael Mendoza in shown in a file photo from March 11, 2021.
Dr. Michael Mendoza in shown in a file photo from March 11, 2021.

UPDATE: Monroe County lawmakers will receive confidential briefings on the former public health commissioner's departure. In a statement Wednesday, a spokesman for County Executive Adam Bello wrote: "As with any personnel matter, the County will act in accordance with its legal obligations. The County Administration will not respond to speculation or political theater. In response to yesterday’s requests from the County Legislature, the County’s legal counsel will provide confidential, attorney-client privileged briefings to all Legislators.”

The briefings still were being arranged as of late Thursday afternoon. The original story continues below.

A separation agreement between Monroe County and former public health commissioner Dr. Michael Mendoza restricts either side from discussing the reasons behind his abrupt departure last month.

But county legislators on both sides of the aisle are demanding answers.

Mendoza resigned March 19, the same day he and the administration signed the separation agreement. While such agreements are not unheard of, some saw this five-page pact as unusual in the extent of the attached conditions.

The agreement provided Mendoza with his full pay and continued health insurance through March 31, and allowed him to cash out his unused vacation time totaling $49,000.

“Employee acknowledges that the vacation accrual payout would not be available to him if employee had been terminated by the county, or if he resigned from the county apart from this agreement because such banks are paid out at the discretion of the county and the county would not otherwise approve any bank payout in such circumstances,” the agreement reads.

By signing, Mendoza was “not ... subject to investigation and/or disciplinary action and will be deemed to have voluntarily resigned from his employment for personal reasons,” the agreement states.

Legislators claim they were not made aware of the agreement and have been given no reason for Mendoza leaving just 15 months into his second, six-year term.

The agreement’s nondisclosure and non-disparagement clauses, and a requirement that Mendoza provide the county public safety director with 48 hours’ notice before entering county facilities, “invoke a great wonder and concern about this sudden and apparently secretive departure,” Legislator Steve Brew, R-Churchville, the Republican conference leader, wrote to Deputy County Executive Jeff McCann on Wednesday.

Brew wants a briefing scheduled by end of day Friday. Refusal to do so, he wrote, “will be met with the exploration of any and all legal authorities provided to the County Legislature to compel such.”

A separate letter from a pair of Democratic legislators pointed to where that might lead.

Vice President Mercedes Vasquez Simmons and Legislator Rachel Barnhart wrote to their colleagues, urging them to investigate — and possibly use the Legislature’s subpoena power to compel testimony by Mendoza. Vazquez Simmons represents the city. Barnhart's district spans parts of the city and Irondequoit.

“The mere existence of the NDA (nondisclosure agreement) and its contents is enough to warrant a legislative inquiry,” they wrote. “The burden is not on us to find out what secrets the Bello administration is keeping from the Legislature before we act. Such a barrier would be insurmountable and serve to protect the interests of the County Executive, not the public’s interest.”

Mendoza’s tenure spanned the COVID-19 pandemic, and he was both cheered and jeered for his leadership during the health crisis.

“This NDA has broad detrimental effects on public health,” the Democrats’ letter continued. “Dr. Mendoza has critical information and perspective which could inform public health efforts in New York and across the country. Yet the Non-Disclosure and Non-Disparagement clause prohibits Dr. Mendoza from ever discussing ‘anything related to his employment’ or ‘information he learned during his employment,’ including about County processes and systems. This would appear to forever prohibit Dr. Mendoza from speaking about Monroe County’s pandemic response, particularly if he wanted to share insights into what could have been done better.”

Mendoza had sought a second term saying that those insights and the relationships be built during the pandemic uniquely qualified him to lead efforts to address health disparities and barriers to care in the years ahead.

WXXI News has an open records request pending with the county seeking records that would provide insight into the reasons for Mendoza’s departure.

Brian Sharp is WXXI's investigations and enterprise editor. He also reports on business and development in the area. He has been covering Rochester since 2005. His journalism career spans nearly three decades.