February 14, 2001

Court Reinstates City Building Commissioner

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Two weeks after Justice Walter J. Relihan of the State Supreme Court approved the reinstatement of Building Commissioner Richard Eckstrom, it remains to be seen whether the City of Ithaca will appeal Relihan’s decision.

The legal struggle stretches back to June 15, 2000 when the Common Council fired Eckstrom upon recommendations of Hearing Officer John M. Crotty. Crotty, a labor attorney, was appointed by the City to investigate charges of incompetence and misconduct leveled by Mayor Alan Cohen ’81 the previous August.

The Mayor and the Common Council issued six charges against Eckstrom shortly after the Tompkins County Human Rights Commission filed a report alleging that the building commissioner’s decision to close down the J.C. Knight Barbershop — which served a largely African-American clientele — may have been racially motivated. The charges themselves did not directly cite racism as a basis for the job termination.

Crotty found Eckstrom guilty on only two charges, after one was withdrawn by the Mayor as a mistake, and three more were dismissed by Crotty on baseless evidence.

In the remaining charges, Eckstrom was accused of making a knowingly incorrect determination regarding the barbershop on N. Cayuga St., and of misclassifying zoning rules for another residence.

In addition, Crotty and the City argued that Eckstrom should have consulted with his staff before making his final decision.

The justice called the Council’s decision arbitrary, writing, “The members of the building department staff, as subordinates, might be obliged to consult the commissioner in a close case, but the commissioner, as chief of department, owed no similar duty to his underlings.”

“Clearly there were people in the department who had a problem with the way Rick was doing his job, but its not up to his employees to question his judgment,” said Ken Vineberg, a member of the Ithaca Planning Board. “A lot of people in this city feel they should just get past it, reach a quick settlement,” he said.

“The charges were on matters of interpretation,” said Eckstrom’s attorney Laurie Johnston. “He was punished for nothing more than using his best professional judgment.”

Last November, after reviewing a transcript of Crotty’s hearing, Justice Relihan approved Eckstrom’s request for reinstatement and backpay.

An appeals process could take as long as a year, said City Attorney Norma Schwabb yesterday. During this time, Eckstrom’s backpay would continue to accrue, unless Eckstrom and the City reach a settlement. Schwabb said that the Common Council has not resolved whether to file a notice of appeal. Its members have until March 7 to arrive at a decision. Common Council members have declined to comment on this matter.

“If the City doesn’t appeal, I suspect he will be back at his job,” said Richard Stumbar, another of Eckstrom’s lawyers. “Rick and his family have been under incredible pressure and scrutiny for a long time – he looks forward to this wrapping up.”

Archived article by Sana Krasikov