NIAGARA FALLS – Jeffrey Skurka, who was fired last year as city engineer, sued the city last week to get his job back and also to collect about $150,000 in lost pay and benefits.
Skurka, who was hired in July 2011, was fired in April 2013 after what his lawsuit says was a run-in with Mayor Paul A. Dyster and City Administrator Donna D. Owens over the Lewiston Road reconstruction project.
The lawsuit contends that Skurka was fired in retaliation for his actions regarding safety violations on Lewiston Road and in violation of whistle-blower provisions of the state Civil Service Law.
Dyster and Corporation Counsel Craig J. Johnson learned of the lawsuit from The Buffalo News on Friday and declined to comment on its contents.
The lawsuit was filed in State Supreme Court by attorney Josephine A. Greco of Buffalo’s Greco Trapp law firm. She could not be reached to comment.
Skurka drew the ire of the City Council almost immediately after joining the administration.
In November 2011, the Council demanded the installation of traffic signals in front of the Como Restaurant on Pine Avenue and in front of LaSalle Elementary School. Skurka didn’t move fast enough to suit the Council majority, The News reported at the time.
In December 2011, after a confrontation over the lack of streetlights at the Center Court housing project, a project built before Skurka was hired, the Council voted to cut Skurka’s $96,000-a-year salary by $20,000. Dyster vetoed the cut, and the Council couldn’t muster the votes needed to override the veto.
But in December 2012, Skurka’s pay was cut to $78,000, a year after he was publicly critical of some of his department’s unionized employees. Dyster vetoed the pay cut again, but this time the Council overrode him.
The main issue that led to his ouster, the lawsuit says, was the long-running Lewiston Road reconstruction project, which had been dragging on for years when Skurka was hired.
The city hired Accadia Site Contracting of Depew to finish the job after trouble with a previous contractor, and also hired the Wendel engineering firm of Amherst to oversee the work.
Skurka said he inspected the project in November 2012 and saw what he considered dangerous work conditions, namely trenches more than 5 feet deep that weren’t braced to protect workers from cave-ins.
Skurka’s suit contends that he raised the issue with Accadia, which didn’t respond and, according to the suit, called Dyster to complain about Skurka’s intervention.
He asserts that Owens told him on Nov. 15, 2012, not to visit the Lewiston Road project again.
But Skurka acknowledges in the suit that he disobeyed such an order March 6, 2013. He said that the trench conditions hadn’t been improved and that he raised his concerns in the field office with Accadia and Wendel representatives.
They disregarded his input, Skurka said, so he called the Buffalo office of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration to complain about the trenches. OSHA inspected the job on the next day and announced May 23 that it was planning to fine Accadia $84,000.
Dyster allegedly reprimanded Skurka over this incident and, on April 16, issued a letter dismissing Skurka.