Ulster County Executive Mike Hein was elated on Wednesday afternoon, giving out free hugs at the A.J. Williams-Myers African Roots Library in Kingston.
Hein signed into law the Ulster County Human Rights Protection Act of 2018, after multiple failed attempts to pass similar legislation over 30 years.
The law allows the Ulster County Human Rights Commission to examine complaints of discrimination, mediate, and help resolve them.
Without a county human rights law, discrimination cases used to have to be referred to the State Human Rights Commission, which required people to travel to Albany for their cases to be heard.
"We have the power now to review, and make a determination," Ulster County Human Rights Commissioner Nina Dawson said after the signing ceremony.
The law applies to discrimination by landlords, employers and even banks based on race, religion, age, gender or sexual orientation.
Dawson said if mediation does not work, a discrimination case can be referred to an administrative law judge who could impose penalties on the accused. She said that is a last resort, as she hopes some landlords and employers may learn through the complaint process and change their policies.
"I would like to think that, as a commission, we would probably want to take the more simplistic avenues," she said.
Dawson said she will gladly accept the victory now, even though human rights legislation was first entertained by county lawmakers 30 years ago — that is when such legislation was first considered, and ultimately shot down.
"Back in the ‘80s they were fighting for this, but it was just not allowed," Dawson, also a former alderwoman on the Kingston Common Council, said about past fights. "It just fell on deaf ears. The importance wasn't seen."
Dawson said that in four months at her position, she has had to refer a handful of discrimination cases to Albany, because of the absence of a local human rights law.
"Kingston has been behind at times," she said. "To see the inclusivity that this is going to bring for people to have respect — regardless of who they are or where they come from — that is long overdue."