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Daytime Hearing for Anti-Harassment Bill Sparks Concerns

Patti Singer

Monroe County Office Building. File photo

By law, the public gets a say on proposed county legislation that would make harassing a first responder a crime.

But opponents of the bill, who claim it is vague and unconstitutional, are wondering how much their opinions will matter.

County Executive Cheryl Dinolfo has indicted she’s inclined to sign a local law entitled “Prohibited Harassment of a Police Officer, Peace Officer or First Responder in Monroe County.”

The hearing is scheduled for 2 p.m. Dec. 2, in legislative chambers of the County Office Building, 39 W. Main St. Anyone wishing to speak can sign up when they enter chambers. There is expected to be a time limit per speaker.

The hearing is in the middle of the first workday following the Thanksgiving weekend.

“Having a hearing at 2 p.m. on a Monday afternoon is not serving the public and is not a genuine attempt to get feedback about the bill,” said Democratic legislator Rachel Barnhart, who represents the 21st District.

Barnhart acknowledged that even when hearings are held at night, they don’t always draw a crowd. She said because this bill is an important issue to many people, she believed they’d turn out.

“Certainly, we have to make a good faith effort to make sure people have an opportunity even if they don’t avail themselves of it,” she said. “Two p.m. on a Monday does send a message that you’re not super interested in what people have to say.”

Several attorneys who wrote a letter to Dinolfo and others, urging her not to sign the bill, also took issue with a daytime schedule. The attorneys wrote that is was “unlike the evening timing of many committee and legislature meetings, when community members can attend.”

The Rev. Lewis Stewart said the timing “is a deliberate attempt to undermine public conversation on this topic.” Stewart leads the United Christian Leadership Ministry, which along with other groups is organizing a march and rally, starting at 12:30 Dec. 2 at 121 N. Fitzhugh and going to the County Office Building at 1 p.m.

Emails circulated from people who expressed frustration with trying to sign up in advance or just in learning about the hearing. The experience has brought attention to legislative process.

“There’s a great civics lesson in the fact that you can’t trust your freedoms to just politicians, that your freedoms have to be your own responsibility,” he said. “Your participation in a democracy has to be your own responsibility.”

According to the proposed law, a person is guilty of harassing a first responder if that person “intentionally engages in conduct” to “annoy, alarm or threaten” the personal safety of the responder. The action must occur when the responder is on the job. Violation is a misdemeanor, punishable up to a year in jail and/or $5,000 fine.

County spokesman Jesse Sleezer said Dinolfo has weighed the different opinions and intends to sign the bill. While the county executive appears to have pen in hand, Sleezer said, “There is always value in sharing one’s opinion on issues of public importance. If someone were to feel this issue were important, they should absolutely avail themselves of the opportunity to discuss that.”

Dinolfo has until Dec. 12 to sign the bill, 30 days since it passed the legislature. If she doesn’t sign, it would not become law and she could send it back to the legislature.

Sleezer disputed that Dinolfo, who lost her re-election bid to Democrat Adam Bello, is making this bill part of her legacy. He said the capital improvements to the airport and zoo, and lowering the property tax rate two years in a row are accomplishments of which he said she is proud.

Sleezer said the bill was introduced before the Nov. 5 election. But it gained headlines when on Nov. 12, the Republican-led legislature called the bill a matter of urgency and passed it along party lines.

The attorneys, in their letter to Dinolfo, Monroe County Sheriff Todd Baxter, Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren and the local office of the state attorney general, said “there was nothing urgent about the need for passage other than the pending change in county leadership … . It did not pass through committee, and the public was not notified.”

The harassment bill was voted on the same night as the CABLE Act of 2019, which would have reduced the powers of the county executive. A few days later, the Republican majority withdrew the CABLE Act. Sleezer said the two are not related in any regard, other than they generated public reaction.

In their 15-page letter dated Nov. 25, attorneys Elliot Dolby Shields, Rhian D. Jones, Mark A. Foti, Jessica L. Naclerio, Brian Shiffrin, Christopher D. Thomas and Donald M. Thompson laid out their argument.

“If enacted, the bill will be challenged and stricken by the courts as unconstitutionally vague, overbroad and violative of the First Amendment,” they wrote. “The statute makes unlawful a range of clearly established First Amendment protected speech and conduct. Thus, if individuals are arrested and charged under this statute, their criminal cases will be dismissed, and they will be entitled to compensatory damages and attorney’s fees in a subsequent civil rights action. We hope this letter persuades you to avoid these consequences that will be detrimental to the County.”

The attorneys said conduct that intends to annoy, alarm or threaten – could mean anything. “The failure to specify what conduct is prohibited makes this statute void for vagueness.”

They also cited several decisions by the state Court of Appeals on laws that were vague or overreached.

The attorneys also said that the law “likely will have greater detrimental impact on communities of color and poorer communities” and “it will undermine the efforts and goals of the newly formed Police Accountability Board … .”

The attorneys requested that, like the CABLE Act, the harassment bill be withdrawn.

This story has been updated to reflect a change in the timeline for action by the county executive.

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