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Bello Blasts Proposed Ethics Reform as ‘Dangerous’

Patti Singer

Democratic Monroe County Legislator Yversha Roman talks about an ethics proposal from the Republican supermajority that would force health commissioner Dr. Michael Mendoza (on screen) to choose between the county and his medical practice.
Photo from Monroe County Zoom feed.

A reform proposal seemingly introduced across party lines in the Monroe County Legislature would appear to play politics with ethics reform.

Legislation dated July 12 would prohibit any outside jobs for county employees in management and professional classifications and it would make it a crime to release publicly any findings of ethics investigations.

The legislation was introduced by Republican Majority Leader Steve Brew and by Vincent Felder, who claims status as Democratic Minority Leader but has aligned with the Black and Asian Democratic Caucus that often votes with Republicans.

The nine other Democrats recognize Yversha Roman as minority leader.

“I think it’s clear that we need ethics reform in Monroe County,” Democratic Legislator Rachel Barnhart said at a news conference July 19. “Recent events have shown that, but this is not the way to do it.”

County Executive Adam Bello called the news conference to highlight what he said would be the real effects of the legislation.

The prohibition against outside employment would force Dr. Michael Mendoza, the commissioner of the Department of Public Health who guided the county through the COVID-19 pandemic, to choose between being commissioner or being able to practice family medicine.

Bello also said the prohibition against releasing reports of ethics investigations would protect legislators accused of wrongdoing — such as Ernest Flagler-Mitchell, who was accused of sexual harassment. The Board of Ethics in June released a report in which it unanimously accepted the findings of an independent investigator that Flagler-Mitchell violated the county’s ethics in relation to those allegations.

Bello called the proposed legislation “dangerous” and “a hostile attack on county employees.” He said the proposal was “either rooted in gross incompetence and a total lack of understanding how government actually works, or it codifies partisan coverups,” and shows the supermajority “is not serious about the important work of governing.”

Bello said ethics reform should enhance transparency and allow voters to see what their elected officials are doing. He said the Republicans and the Black and Asian Democratic Caucus are moving “in the exact opposite direction.”

The comment drew a rebuttal from Brew, who called it shameful that Bello was “politicizing ethics reform.” He said local laws go through a vetting process that encourages discussion but Bello and Democrats chose to act reactively rather than collaboratively.

The Black and Asian Caucus issued a statement:

“The Black and Asian Democratic Caucus of the Monroe County Legislature condemns statements made today by County Executive Adam Bello and members of the minority caucus of the Legislature connecting them to legislation submitted at last week’s meeting. “Actions and statements like this are evidence of why we can’t trust the Bello administration and his cronies in the Legislature. We have never said we support this legislation and he is putting words in our mouths while talking out of both sides of his,” (emphasis theirs) said assistant Black and Asian Democratic Caucus Leader Sabrina LaMar. “Saying they want ethics reform and then posturing by pledging a veto before it has even come before a committee is hypocritical.

“In addition to disagreeing with the County Executive assuming the Caucus’s position, the Caucus also completely and forcefully denies wanting Public Health Commissioner Dr. Michael Mendoza to leave his position. Dr. Mendoza has done an excellent job leading the County through the COVID-19 pandemic and we are glad to have him as Commissioner.”

In addition to LaMar, the statement was signed by Calvin Lee Jr. Frank Keophetlasy and Flagler-Mitchell.

When the Black and Asian Democratic Caucus votes as a bloc with Republicans, it creates a supermajority. However, Republicans hold a 15-14 edge over Democrats, regardless of how they are aligned.

The proposal is scheduled to go to the agenda/charter committee on July 26 and it still has to get a public hearing.

The Brew-Felder sponsored ethics bill drew a comparison to the anti-harassment law championed by Republican Karla Boyce in 2019, which was designed to protect first responders and signed by outgoing County Executive Cheryl DiNolfo.

After a backlash by activists and Democrats, including Felder and Flagler-Mitchell, that the bill would target people of color in the city, Boyce moved a couple of months later to have it repealed.

The similarities weren’t lost on Roman.

“Both are pieces of legislation that were not thought through and have consequences not thought of by the legislators who introduced the referral,” Roman said.

Bello said the ethics legislation “was quietly introduced,” which he called “another tell, when they introduce legislation like this and don’t publicize it.”

Barnhart said the Democrats had introduced ethics reform, but that proposal was tabled and remains unheard.

Bello provided a comparison of three aspects of each proposal compared to the current ethics code.

  • Public disclosure of ethics investigations: Current code allows for reports of the Board of Ethics to be public by unanimous vote or by county executive. Bello and Democratic proposal calls for any report substantiating a claim of sexual harassment to be public. Majority proposal prevents public disclosure and penalizes the release.
  • Outside employment for management: Current code prohibits anything that’s a conflict with official duties. Bello and Democrats want to codify the existing review process. Majority flat-out prohibits employment, no exceptions.
  • Strengthening conflict provisions. Bello and Democrats want more provisions on roles of departing or current employees in conducting business before the county. Majority proposal does not make any provisions.

Brew refuted four claims by Bello, including a way to keep “valued” county employees and a way to protect people who make ethics complaints

As for outside employment, the county changed its rules in 2016 when Mendoza came on board to allow the health commissioner to maintain a medical practice. Mendoza needs to see patients in order to maintain certification in family medicine from the American Board of Family Medicine. Mendoza sees patients two days a week at UR Medicine’s Highland Family Medicine.

Asked which he would choose if the proposal passes, Mendoza said, “That’s not something I want to think about.”

The prohibition against outside employment also would affect others in the health department and public defender’s office.

The Brew-Felder proposal added a paragraph that would prohibit harassment based on sex, sexual orientation, gender expression or identity, or transgender status. It also would include prohibition against “unwelcome conduct, such as sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, sex stereotyping or other verbal, written, or physical conduct which is either of a sexual nature, or which is directed at an individual because of that individual’s sex, sexual orientation, self-identified or perceived sex, gender expression, gender identity or the status of being transgender.