ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — Republicans in the Monroe County Legislature are trying to force Public Health Commissioner Dr. Michael Mendoza to vacate his post, Monroe County Executive Adam Bello said Monday.
Bello, was joined by Dr. Mendoza via Zoom, and members of the Democratic caucus in the county legislature for a press conference Monday.
“Last week, under the guise of ethics reform, county legislature Republicans and their super majority partners in the Black and Asian Caucus submitted legislation that would effectively force Dr. Mendoza to vacate his position as public health commissioner,” Bello said. “Not only that, their proposal would also outlaw the public disclosure of ethics violations, like those findings of sexual harassment like those found against current colleague and political ally, legislator Ernest Flagler-Mitchell.”
Flagler-Mitchell “temporarily” stepped down from his leadership position in the Black and Asian Caucus last month after 13 women came forward with claims of sexual harassment and an independent ethics investigation found Flagler-Mitchell violated the county’s code of ethics. Officials from the Monroe County District Attorney’s office said they would not pursue criminal charges.
“It’s dangerous, and this proposal should not have seen the light of day,” Bello said. “This new law would prohibit, without exception, outside employment by county employees in the management and professional classification. As many people know, Dr. Mendoza has maintained his practice at Highland Family Medicine since becoming the Public Health Commissioner in 2016. What many don’t know is that he needs to continue to see patients at his practice so he can maintain his board certification.”
The county executive says under the proposed Republican legislation, Dr. Mendoza would need to either vacate the position as Public Health Commissioner, or give up his medical board certification. Bello says Dr. Mendoza has been a valuable community asset in his role, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr. Mendoza started in his commissioner position in 2016 on an interim-basis under Republican leadership and then-county executive Cheryl Dinolfo.
“Prior to his appointment in 2016, Monroe County and our Public health Commissioner position were under continuous scrutiny from New York state because of instability at that position,” Bello said. “Dr. Mendoza has changed that, bringing unquestioned leadership and professionalism to one of the most important departments in Monroe County — something we all experienced firsthand as the COVID-19 pandemic shone a light on the department, and demonstrated without question just how valuable Dr. Mendoza’s experience and expertise is to the public and our health.”
“I took this job with the condition that I would be able to maintain my primary care practice at Highland,” Dr. Mendoza said. “I don’t think anybody would intentionally want to jeopardize my role, and many of those in the health department, especially not in the middle of a global pandemic.”
News 8 spoke with Monroe County Legislator Vince Felder, who signed the new legislation. He said they would be adjusting this part of the legislation.
“We’re going to look at that. Somebody thought that was a good idea, but we are going to look at that, because we don’t want to lose good people and in the case of Dr. Mendoza, we knew when we hired him that he had that position so it would be unfair to him to come out now and say you can’t do both, because he’s been doing it since you hired him,” Felder said. “That’s why we go through the legislative process.”
Felder said he didn’t agree with County Executive Bello holding Monday’s press conference.
“I don’t think it’s helpful for the County Executive to talk about vetoing legislation before it even goes to the committee. I think that’s premature, because he could have very easily made a phone call or sent a letter and said this is going too far,” Felder said.
In addition to changing employment requirements for county officials, Bello says the Republican proposal would hide any potential wrongdoing from becoming public.
“This law would prohibit the board’s ability to release findings of any investigation, effectively keeping the public in the dark of any findings,” Bello said. “Just seven months ago, a brave woman came forward to file an ethics complaint against a county legislator for sexual harassment. Since then, the investigation uncovered nearly a dozen other credible allegations against the same person. The public responded by crying out for reform to hold public officials accountable and what did the Republican majority do? They introduce legislation that would weaken the authority of the ethics board. To an outsider you would look at this and think ‘this is a joke, this is made up,’ but it’s not a joke. This is serious.”
“I am here to say, time and time again, we are fighting a lack of due diligence of the county legislature because they refuse to look at what they’re proposing before they’re proposing it,” said Monroe County Legislature Minority Leader Yversha Roman (D-26). “When you have a block that feels like they can do anything, poor pieces of legislation continue to be passed.”
Republica Majority Leader Steve Brew released the following statement Monday :
“It’s shameful that County Executive Bello is politicizing ethics reform and continuing to spread misinformation to residents.
Proposed local laws submitted to the Legislature are subject to significant vetting through the Committee process, public hearing, a vote of the Legislature, and ultimately, the signature of the County Executive. The exchange of ideas and opinions is encouraged through this entire process; unfortunately, the County Executive and Democrat legislators chose to act reactively by holding a press event rather than working collaboratively to seek solutions.
Even more shocking than County Executive Bello’s fabrication of the truth is his intention to veto important ethics legislation. This legislation is necessary and politics cannot interfere with making sure the right thing is done.”
Republicans in the Monroe County Legislature released the following document which they say outlines “myths” claimed by Bello Monday:
Legislators within the Black and Asian caucus released a statement Monday saying the caucus “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.”
The statement went on to condemn Bello’s comments Monday morning.
“Actions and statements like this are evidence of why we can’t trust the Bello administration and his cronies in the legislature,” said Black and Asian Caucus assistant leader Sabrina LaMar (D-27) in a statement. “We have never said we support this legislation and he is putting words in our mouths while talking out of both sides of his. Saying they want ethics reform, then posturing by pledging a veto before it has even come before a committee is hypocritical.”
Three sitting members of the Black and Asian caucus lost their primary election races in June.
Meanwhile, Monroe County’s COVID-19 rates have been increasing slightly over the past few weeks, but positivity rates have remained under 1% and regional hospitalization rates have remained steady.
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As of Saturday, the Finger Lakes region had 24 COVID-19 hospitalizations and 4 people in the ICU with the virus, according to the New York State Department of Public Health.
Full press conference:
This is developing story. News 8 WROC will provide updates as they become available.