ANCRAM—Disrespectful behavior against women has occurred, according to the findings of an attorney’s investigation. The challenge now is: How to fix it moving forward.
At the January Town Board meeting, Jack Lindsey addressed the board about numerous incidents of “dismissive, sometimes hostile or inappropriate treatment of women who serve the town or come to the Town Hall for constituent services…”
The incidents were related to him in conversations over the past year and a half and the improper treatment came at the hands of certain men presently serving the town, Mr. Lindsey said. Mr. Lindsey’s presentation was the subject of a January 27 story in The Columbia Paper, “Witnesses call out Ancram officials,” which can be found at www.columbiapaper.com
According to town policy, the town is obligated to investigate such claims, Ancram Supervisor Art Bassin told The Columbia Paper this week, so the board enlisted the services of Attorney Elena DeFio Kean with the Hinman Straub law firm in Albany to look into the matter. Ms. Kean started her investigation February 12 and concluded it with the submission of her findings report April 21. She interviewed 20 people—all were town employees, elected officials or volunteers on one or more town committees. Her investigation also included the review of: Town Board memos; draft board resolutions; Town Board meeting minutes; potential proposed draft Code of Conduct; Town Employee Handbook; Town Policy and Complaint Procedure regarding discrimination and harassment; Town Code of Ethics and Ethics Law.
In addition, to the policies, she reviewed:
• Mr. Lindsey’s January 20 statement to the Town Board
• Two related complaints that were made to the Town subsequent to the January 20 Town Board meeting.
• Email communications; Planning Board audio recordings; and findings and conclusions relative to operation of the Planning Board from 2020.
In her 13-page report, which Ms. Kean summarized at the April 21 Town Board meeting, she “tracked” each instance identified by Mr. Lindsey and noted findings and conclusions for each.
The full attorney’s report may be found on the town’s website at www.ancramny.org.
In the report, Ms. Kean notes that “many of the items raised by Mr. Lindsey’s letter were events that occurred, in some instances, more than 10 years earlier.” She said, “it did expose a perceived theme of dismissal and disrespect towards women by many women interviewed, but not all women interviewed.”
While some female interviewees said they were not subject to different treatment based on gender, others said it was other women who subjected them to hostile/dismissive treatment if they disagreed on a topic.
Twice in her comments under the finding and conclusions section she noted differences in male versus female perceptions: “Male individuals questioned did not acknowledge that any such events could be occurring.” And “Male witnesses did not believe they were being dismissive or rude but rather expressing their opinions as was their right and obligation upon their role on a particular Board or Committee.”
Ms. Kean found that “the majority of those interviewed acknowledged that dismissive and disrespectful behavior occurs at times. Many believed it was not gender-based but rather, an objection to views or unrealistic positions taken by various individuals. However, this behavior demonstrates a lack of respect for other positions.”
She noted that, “While the perception can be highlighted that this may be a male/female issue, overall, on a larger scale, it would appear to be a failure to respect and value the opinions of various individuals.
“Therefore, regardless of gender, there needs to be certain guidelines put in place to ensure the respectful treatment of all individuals, particularly in light of the fact that the majority of these individuals are serving the Town in one or more capacity on a volunteer basis.”
In a subsequent section of her report, Ms. Kean lists 19 proposed suggestions for change moving forward. The suggestions come from those interviewed who were all asked to weigh in. They include: committees should be more diverse; trainings should be in person; update anti-harassment training; all volunteers should undergo sensitivity training; more respect for different opinions; the town should host a Volunteer Appreciation Day, which might serve as a good interactive event and revise the Ethics Laws.
Ms. Kean offered a list of 25 considerations and recommendations for change based on her investigation, ranging from creating a code of conduct; revamping the way public comment at meetings is handled; creating service and term limits; training, training and more training; improving communication with more meetings and putting policy changes in place and enforcing them.
During board member comments, Councilman Hugh Clark praised Ms. Kean’s “professional ability to ferret out the facts” and noted “now it is up to us [the board] to come to conclusions.”
Councilwoman Amy Gold noted that the ad hoc committee formed back in February to address the disrespect issue is reviewing proposed changes to the employee handbook. Councilwoman Bonnie Hundt noted that any changes would ultimately comeback to the town board for action. Councilman David Boice was absent.
The Town Board will now take the time to digest the attorney’s report and take up the matter again next month. It will develop, over the next few months, the plans necessary to implement the recommendations presented.
Board members agreed that the town owes Mr. Lindsey a debt of gratitude for bringing the disrespectful behavior issue out into the open.
Ms. Kean said at the conclusion of her report, “the Town Board of Ancram should be applauded for examining this issue and affording this exploration with no impingement on the investigation. While there was no finding of a violation of law or ethics, the investigation did reveal areas for potential improvement and consideration.”