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Potsdam’s fired codes officer files lawsuit

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CANTON -Potsdam’s former code enforcement officer has filed a lawsuit that claims he was illegally fired by the village board and should be reinstated to his $45,904 a year job.

Timothy J. O’Brien alleges that his May 30 firing took place after he tried to enforce building and safety regulations at Clarkson University, where three village board members are employed and at rental properties that Village Trustee Stephen J. Warr manages for his family trust.

Mayor Steven W. Yurgartis is a professor of mechanical engineering at Clarkson and Trustee Eleanor F. Hopke is a part-time laboratory assistant. Trustee Reinhold J. Tischler works for a food contracting company that serves Clarkson.

The lawsuit was filed in state Supreme Court and follows a notice of claim Mr. O’Brien filed in June.

Mr. Yugartis declined to discuss the pending legal action.

“This is a personnel matter and now a legal matter, and I just can’t comment on that,” Mr. Yurgartis said Tuesday.

Mr. O’Brien alleges that he did not receive a written disciplinary notice or a hearing before he was fired in a 3-1 vote by the village board.

Defendants include Mr. Yurgartis, Mr. Warr, Mr. Tischler, Mrs. Hopke and the village board as a whole. The only trustee not named individually is Trustee Ruth F. Garner who voted against the firing.

The suit claims that Mr. O’Brien was denied “due process” by not receiving a written disciplinary notice or a hearing before he was fired.

It also alleges that Mr. Yurgartis “scolded” the code enforcement officer for trying to make Clarkson University abide by state building laws related to public health and safety.

There is an implied condition of employment that an employee “can’t be fired for performing his legally imposed duties,” the suit states.

Mr. O’Brien’s one-year probationary appointment to the code enforcement job began May 30, 2011. During the 18 months when he worked part-time for the village as a code enforcement officer, he never received a job performance complaint from the village, the suit claims.

The probationary status should have expired May 29, which means Mr. O’Brien was already a permanent employee when he was fired on May 30, the suit claims.

The termination violated state civil service laws, the Potsdam employee handbook, St. Lawrence County civil service manual and freedom of expression rights guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution, the suit claims.

Mr. O’Brien is seeking reinstatement to his job, plus retirement and benefits, back pay and other expenses. The suit was prepared by attorney David M. Lenney, Clifton Park.

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