The city has asked a state judge to overturn an arbitrator's decision to allow a 27-year employee back on the job after he was placed on leave for putting a handmade "whites only" sign on a public works drinking fountain.
In a lawsuit filed this week in State Supreme Court, City Attorney Christopher M. Mazur argued that the arbitrator's decision "essentially renders the city powerless in relations to its ability to manage its work force and maintain order."
The arbitrator ruled Aug. 31 that the city's decision to fire equipment operator James R. Curtis over the August 2008 incident was "excessive" and that he should instead be given a 50-day unpaid suspension.
Curtis has been on paid administrative leave after filing a union grievance that sought to stop the city from firing him. He already has served a 20-day unpaid suspension.
"When it is all said and done, tens of thousands of dollars in taxpayer money was wasted because of James Curtis' unfortunate, unnecessary and incredibly stupid actions," Mazur wrote in the lawsuit. "And, to make matters worse, for all his efforts Mr. Curtis has been rewarded with what amounts to a seven-month paid vacation during the pendency of this matter."
Curtis, who first lied about the sign and then admitted placing it on the fountain, pleaded guilty last November to a second-degree aggravated harassment misdemeanor count. He was sentenced to three years of probation and 50 hours of community service.
He has apologized for the incident and has said he meant it only as a joke.
A representative from United Steelworkers 9434-02 argued that the sign was a one-time mistake by a longtime employee with "an impeccable work record." The union representative, Len Sauro, also argued that Curtis was given different disciplinary treatment than another employee charged with a similar offense, according to a transcript of the arbitrator's hearing.
Sauro told the arbitrator that "similar events" occurred in the city's Department of Public Works in the past.
"They are considered commonplace and shoptalk by various ethnic groups and condoned by everyone," Sauro told the arbitrator. "Although the act of putting up the sign is inappropriate and offensive, the actions of Jim Curtis must also be viewed under the totality of circumstances existing in his work environment at the DPW in the City of Niagara Falls."
City officials argued before the arbitrator that the sign incident brought negative publicity to the city and caused racial tension among employees. Mazur said a shoving match broke out between employees who were discussing the issue shortly after the incident.
Curtis testified during the arbitrator's hearing that he put the "whites only" drinking fountain sign up after overhearing a joke made the day before by a black employee. That employee, Curtis recalled, said he was going to designate the new drinking fountain for black employees.
The sign made by Curtis was up for about five minutes before he took it down and threw it in the trash, Curtis testified.
Curtis admitted making the sign only after a police detective compared his handwriting sample with the words on the handwritten sign, according to arbitration records.
The arbitrator, James R. McDonnell, agreed with the union that Curtis "deserves another chance" and that he could "be a productive and accepted employee."
McDonnell, in his decision, cited Curtis' work record and the fact that he had support from fellow workers, had accepted responsibility for his actions and had "already paid a high price."
McDonnell also rejected the characterization of the incident as a joke.
"Clearly, no one is laughing now," McDonnell wrote. "And going forward, no employee of the city should suffer any delusion that this type of conduct can ever be accepted as a joke."