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Probation imposed for racist sign

A truck driver for the city Public Works and Parks Department told a judge Friday that putting up a racially motivated "whites only" sign on a water fountain last summer was "the stupidest thing I have ever done in my life."

James R. Curtis then was sentenced to three years' probation, 50 hours in the Niagara County works program and mandatory cultural diversity training.

City Judge Mark A. Violante also ordered Curtis to submit to random alcohol and drug testing, and pay a $200 surcharge.

"This is a very racist act which was done for no good reason," Violante told Curtis. "It isn't a joke, and it shouldn't be a joke. . . . Niagara Falls is a very diverse city. The people in this city shouldn't have to put up with this."

Curtis, 52, of 80th Street, who has worked for the city for 26 years, admitted putting up the handwritten "whites only drinking fountain" sign in the city's public works garage Aug. 13.

He told police investigators when he was charged Aug. 29 that he quickly realized that posting the sign was a bad idea. He has told The Buffalo News that he threw the card away and that "no one was ever supposed to see it."

The sign -- handwritten on the back of a time card -- was found and photographed by an African-American worker, and prompted a weeklong investigation that involved the state attorney general's office.

Curtis' arrest attracted national attention. He originally faced a much more serious felony hate crime charge until October, when the Niagara County district attorney's office reduced the charges after interviewing his fellow employees.

He pleaded guilty Nov. 11 to second-degree aggravated harassment, a misdemeanor.

Harvey F. Siegel, Curtis' defense lawyer, said his client was not "mean-spirited" and pointed to support from 44 of his co-workers, including several African-Americans.

Siegel said in the courtroom on Friday that this was a way that some of the workers joked around and that Curtis has been "deeply embarrassed and ashamed."

"Now his future employment remains hanging in the balance. The mayor said himself when this started that whoever did this will be fired," Siegel said.

Curtis remains on paid administrative leave and faces a disciplinary proceeding.

Mayor Paul A. Dyster would not say late Friday afternoon what might happen to Curtis as a result of the proceeding -- but added that the incident has left a blemish on the city.

"It certainly damaged the reputation of the city, subjecting the city to national ridicule," Dyster said. "Also, as a practical matter, there has been a loss of time [because of] dealing with the consequences of his actions. It's created more work for our [Law] Department, for our Human Resources Department, our city administrator's office, and it has resulted in an additional burden on our public works department."

Racial tensions in the department should have been readily apparent to Curtis, Dyster said, adding that the city has stepped up efforts in the city work force to combat discrimination.

In the courtroom, Curtis said, "I'm terrible sorry for what I did."

e-mail: nfischer@buffnews.com

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