Legislators say it’s not needed; Montgomery decries ‘stonewalling’
Putnam legislators on Aug. 7 rejected a proposal to create a human rights commission, saying the county has too few problems to justify it and that it would duplicate state anti-bias efforts.
The 9-3 vote came during a meeting held by audio connection that had been rescheduled from earlier in the week due to power outages caused by Tropical Storm Isaias.
The proposal was endorsed by County Executive MaryEllen Odell, a Republican, and championed by Nancy Montgomery, the only Democrat on the Legislature, who represents Philipstown. The commission would be asked to “inquire into incidents of tension and conflict among or between various racial, religious and nationality groups” and recommend solutions, according to the resolution presented to the Legislature.
In a letter dated July 17, Odell told representatives of Putnam Pride, Putnam Progressives and Putnam County Patriots for Immigration Reform that she would sign the resolution “once adopted” by the Legislature, “as I believe that the creation of a Human Rights Commission in our community is an important step toward creating greater cultural understanding and tolerance.”
Montgomery noted that Dutchess and Westchester, as well as other counties in the Mid-Hudson Valley, have commissions.
For Beacon Residents
The Dutchess County Commission on Human Rights, which was created in 1984 and re-established in 2016, can be contacted at 845-486-2169 or dchumanrights @ dutchessny.gov.
Its mission includes reporting complaints of alleged discrimination because of age, religion or religious practice, race, color, gender identity, sexual orientation, national origin, marital status, domestic violence victimization, disability, military status, arrest record, conviction record, predisposing genetic characteristic, familial status (housing only) and domestic worker status (employment only).
“If you believe you have a human rights issue, please contact us so that we can discuss the situation with you and help you decide the best course of action,” the commission says on its website. That could include sending a complaint to the White Plains office of the state Division of Human Rights.
The Putnam commission, which would receive no funding from the county, would have the power to receive and direct allegations of human rights violations to the New York State Human Rights Division or to local, state or federal agencies; offer programs to educate the public; and work “to foster mutual respect and understanding.” Its members would have included a volunteer from each legislative district.
Legislators Joseph Castellano of Brewster and Neal Sullivan of Carmel-Mahopac joined Montgomery in voting for the commission.
Legislators William Gouldman of Putnam Valley, Paul Jonke of Southeast, Ginny Nacerino of Patterson, Amy Sayegh of Mahopac, Carl Albano of Carmel and Toni Addonizio of Kent, who chairs the Legislature, each voted “no.”
Albano acknowledged that “it would be silly to say there never were issues [in Putnam]. But when they did arise, it seemed the community was extremely upset and they were addressed immediately.” In addition, he said, “I just don’t want to see more government where it is not necessary.”
Nacerino asserted that “no one on this Legislature said they are against basic human rights” or tolerance. “We know more has to be done to alleviate bigotry, prejudice and discrimination” but creating a commission that fields complaints “will not meet our goal,” she said.
She referred to the commission as “nine untrained, uneducated, rookie volunteers who are at the mercy of the people who come to them. They’re not in a position to handle that. They don’t know how to mediate. They don’t know what to do.”
Furthermore, she said, the commission’s work could invite false accusations and smears against “victims of retaliatory tactics. Is this what we call fair and just?”
Nacerino and other opponents also maintained the state Human Rights Division, which has investigatory power, can address complaints from Putnam.
Sayegh said that schools play a role in overcoming discrimination and that law enforcement can pursue those who commit hate crimes. “Do we need, in our little county, more intervention?” she said. “We have the protections in place. It’s not the human rights I vote against. It’s the politicization of human rights,” the costs and replication of state activities, she said.
Castellano said that the legislators “are very careful with finances” and that a commission comes with “a fine line” to calibrate. “I’m very concerned with where it could go,” he admitted. Yet, he concluded, forming one “is the right thing to do.”
Sullivan described the commission as an advisory panel with “the ability to assist people and educate them.” He also pointed out that “we don’t know whether it is or isn’t needed” because that only becomes apparent after it’s in place.
Legislators on both sides reported receiving numerous messages from residents, who, like the Legislature, were divided.
Jonke said legislators had been called racists and pigs and that some proponents for a commission “fill social media with some of the most angry, hateful speech I’ve ever seen.” Actually, he added, “you can be in favor of human rights and be opposed to the human rights commission.”
Before the vote, in a posting on Facebook, Montgomery wrote that that since the May 25 killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis, “people from every Putnam town have stood up for the causes of human rights broadly, and racial equality specifically” and focused attention on the county’s racial, social and economic disparities.
“It can be hard for us to admit that we have human rights issues in Putnam,” she wrote. “But we do have them, even in our local governments” and governing bodies, which she said do not adequately reflect demographic and socioeconomic realities.
“The power we hold as legislators comes with tremendous responsibility,” she wrote. “We need to use it with great humility. And that means making space for multiple points of view, multiple experiences and multiple ways of seeing. Diversity requires diversity of thought, from many sources. A county-level human rights commission is a forum in which people can speak honestly about their experiences, disagree respectfully and find pathways to change, together.”
During the Aug. 7 meeting, Montgomery castigated her colleagues for “partisan gamesmanship” and “back-room business,” which, she contended, “has been the way of county government for too long in Putnam. And it’s wrong.”
From “Day One,” she said, “you have made choices to stonewall and limit my ability to deliver for my constituents. Worse, for the sake of gamesmanship, you hurt your own constituents. The people you hurt by denying a human rights commission are all across Putnam. Someone you know would benefit from a commission. And you’re willing to deny them in an attempt to hurt me.”
It won’t succeed, she promised. “I will be back.”