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Bello, legislators propose adding sexual harassment to county ethics code

Apr 14, 2021

Monroe County Executive Adam Bello.
Credit Max Schulte/WXXI News

The Monroe County Board of Ethics would be compelled to investigate accusations of sexual harassment in county government and publicly identify employees guilty of such behavior under new legislation proposed by County Executive Adam Bello and Democratic legislators.

A memo introduced with the proposal noted that the county already follows state and federal laws prohibiting harassment and sexual harassment in the workplace, but stressed that “it is critical for the county to demonstrate that sexual harassment, unwanted sexual attention, or degrading or abusive behavior can never be tolerated.”

The measure will be discussed during committee meetings at the end of the month.

“I believe strongly that Monroe County government must be committed to building a culture of respect and dignity for all persons, especially the residents we serve,” Bello said in a news release Wednesday.

The county’s Code of Ethics currently lacks any mention of either verbal, written or physical harassment, or of sexual harassment. The code largely speaks to conflicts of interest, the role of the county’s ethics board in hearing and ruling on complaints about employees, and provides for disciplinary actions such as fines, suspension, or removal.

The legislation follows recent claims of sexual harassment lodged against public officials -- most notably Gov. Andrew Cuomo and, locally, County Legislator Ernest Flagler Mitchell.

Several women who worked in state government have alleged that Cuomo sexually harassed them or created a toxic work environment.

Flagler-Mitchell, a Democrat and member of the breakaway Black and Asian Democratic Caucus, in January was accused of sending a sexually explicit photo and suggestive text messages to a 19-year-old woman.

The members of that caucus, including Flagler-Mitchell, have not signed onto the legislation.

Flager-Mitchell ultimately acknowledged sending a sexually explicit photo to the woman, Lakaya Sinclair, who is now 20, and has explained that the photo was meant for his wife. A complaint was lodged with the county Board of Ethics, which is still reviewing the matter.

Democratic Legislator Rachel Barnhart, one of the sponsors of the legislation, said the Cuomo situation showed that the county needed a clear path for complaints about sexual harassment. As more women came forward, state officials were left trying to figure out how to address them. Eventually, the governor referred the matter to the Attorney General’s Office and the state Assembly began impeachment proceedings.

“This clearly spells out, ‘What do we do now?’ ” Barnhart said of the proposal.

The legislation would also amend the ethics code to prohibit county officers and employees from doing business with the county for two years following their employment or term of office.

Jeremy Moule is CITY’s news editor. He can be reached at jmoule@rochester-citynews.com.