Skurka Fired; Charges City, Dyster With Wholesale Violations of State Regulations
By Mike Hudson
City Engineer Jeffrey Skurka was fired by Mayor Paul Dyster last week, shortly after speaking out to the Niagara Falls Reporter about the unethical, if not illegal, manner in which the city’s engineering department is being run.
To be precise, Dyster didn’t fire Skurka personally. That would have involved actually doing something and exposed him to even more potential liability in the massive lawsuit the former city engineer will now most certainly file.
Instead, the mayor had our highly paid but nearly invisible city administrator, Donna Owens, do the deed by mail. Her letter, dated April 16, reached Skurka on April 22. It was to the point but gave no reason for the termination.
“Effective immediately, your services as City Engineer are terminated,” Owens wrote. “Your removal as City Engineer also includes any and all other City of Niagara Falls appointments and employment which you may have.”
Skurka was hired in July 2011, and his 21-month tenure makes him the longest-serving city engineer under Dyster, who has been in office for 52 months.
“I’m talking to an attorney right now, and I’ve filed a complaint with the state Board of Engineers,” Skurka said. “Obviously, I’m not the first engineer who’s had trouble with this administration.”
Skurka said his complaint to the state centers on Dyster’s ongoing practice of directing unlicensed engineers working for the city to perform tasks that, under law, may only be performed by a licensed professional engineer.
“You’ve got three people in the engineering department being ordered by the mayor to do design work, which is illegal.” Skurka said. “It is a Class E felony in New York State to direct unlicensed individuals to perform work that requires a licensed engineer.”
Skurka said he was ordered by Dyster to stay away from the major ongoing construction projects he was supposed to be overseeing.
“The mayor told me personally - and the city administrator was present - I was banned from the Lewiston Road and Buffalo Avenue work sites and that I was no longer allowed to attend the progress meetings for those projects,” Skurka said.
Instead, the mayor chose to rely on his friends at Wendel Duchscherer Architects & Engineers, the Buffalo consulting firm that has bled the city treasury dry with its exorbitant hourly rates ever since Dyster took office.
“Not only do I have a contractor out there cheating, I’ve got Wendel not doing the job they’re being paid to do and I’m not even allowed to go there,” Skurka said.
Skurka then directed a trusted associate to go photograph the work sites.
“I told him to get over there and that he couldn’t take enough pictures,” he told the Reporter.
The photographs confirmed Skurka’s worst fears. Safety violations and other irregularities were taking place in broad daylight. No wonder Dyster didn’t wanted him on the job sites, he thought.
The mayor has had an ongoing problem with finding and keeping a qualified city engineer throughout his nearly five-year tenure.
On his first day in office, Jan. 1, 2008, Dyster fired the incumbent city engineer, Bob Curtis, who was by all accounts a competent individual. Niagara Falls was then in the midst of what turned out to be a $50 million construction project at the new Main Street courthouse.
Curtis had criticized the courthouse contractors, Ciminelli/Largo, saying the city would get hit hard with change orders if these particular builders were not carefully monitored. Curtis actually suggested taking the project away from Ciminelli and doing the courthouse as a public works project.
Those comments by Curtis may have been the reason he was fired. Dyster went ahead with hiring an outside engineering firm, LiRo, to oversee the construction and the expensive change orders came in by the bushel basket.
The city was then without an engineer until the highly touted hiring of Ali Marzban in March 2009. Dyster’s best efforts at hiring “the best and the brightest” failed to turn up the fact that Marzban was unlicensed to practice engineering anywhere in the United States.
Shortly after Marzban was hired, an investigation by this newspaper uncovered his lack of credentials. He was fired a short time later, but not before he managed to--apparently illegally-- sign off on the Lewiston Road project.
A fiasco from the start, the Lewiston Road project is now millions of dollars over budget and years behind schedule.
Work began in August 2009 and was supposed to have been completed in 24 months at a cost of $7.7 million.
After Marzban’s dismissal, the city was again without an engineer until Dyster hired Tom Radomski in January of 2010.
Radomski resigned 17 months later over what the administration called a “residency law violation” but which City Hall insiders say was Radomski’s unwillingness to go along with Dyster on matters he thought to be unethical or possibly even illegal.
Skurka came on board two months after Radomski’s exit with high hopes that were soon to be dashed.
“I was certainly being pressured (by Dyster) to do things I knew were unacceptable, but I have a professional obligation, a responsibility,” Skurka said. “They couldn’t deal with that.”
Skurka has nearly 20 years of experience in engineering consulting and formerly worked for the municipal utilities authority for the Town of Brick, N.J. He moved to Western New York in 2006 and worked for RJR Engineering in Springville before applying for the job in the falls.
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