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By Mike Hudson

Six African-American employees of the city's Department of Public Works have filed a lawsuit in state Supreme Court alleging a continuing pattern of racist behavior on the part of DPW Director Paul Colangelo and others.

In court papers, longtime city workers Joseph Paulk, Emmett Cox, Richard Hill, William Wilson, Bruce Palmer and Hugh Leftwich charge the city with numerous violations of the state's Human Rights law. The suit seeks unspecified monetary damages for loss of income, emotional pain and suffering and damage to reputation.

The six are being represented by Buffalo attorney Richard Wyssling, a labor law specialist. "Would I say he's racist? Yes, I say it all the time," Cox said of Colangelo. "I've been on this job for 15 years and we've never had these kinds of problems."

It is not known whether mayor-elect Vince Anello will keep Colangelo in his current position once he takes office in January, but sources told the Reporter that Colangelo is interested in staying on.

The suit cites nearly 50 individual instances in which the men say they were passed over for promotion in favor of white candidates, subjected to racial epithets, disciplined for behavior that was overlooked in white co-workers and forced to work under different rules than their white counterparts.

Furthermore, the suit points up the almost stunning lack of African-American employment by the city as further evidence of racial discrimination. In the streets department, for example, just two of the 25 to 30 employees are African-American, while in the sewer department only three of the 50 to 60 are.

According to the 2000 census, more than 30 percent of the city's population is African-American.

The individual incidents, combined with the lack of minority hiring, constitute an ongoing pattern of racial discrimination on the part of the city, the suit contends.

Paulk, who has worked for the city since 1988, said filing the lawsuit was something of a last resort for the men. Its primary purpose was to call attention to the ongoing problem, he said.

"We've won grievances we filed and had supervisors' decisions overturned by the personnel department who knew that what was going on was wrong," Paulk said. "But things just continued to deteriorate, and we felt we had no other choice."

Thinking that a potential multi-million dollar lawsuit against the city by six of its employees on grounds of racism might have some potential news value, Paulk and Cox approached the Niagara Gazette after the suit was filed in June.

"They didn't even want to talk to us," Paulk told the Reporter. "They said they weren't interested at all."

Aside from the financial aspect, the lawsuit could have serious repercussions for the city. Other New York municipalities that have been shown to engage in discriminatory practices have had strict sanctions placed on them by Albany, ranging from fines to hiring quotas.

When Mayor Irene Elia took office in January 2000, one of her first orders of business was to close the city's Human Rights office, which had served to mediate racial issues here.

Paulk, Cox and the other plaintiffs say the lawsuit could have been avoided entirely had the administration taken some action following their dozens of individual complaints.

"We just want this to stop," Paulk said. "We've worked for the city of Niagara Falls for a long time, all of us, and we just want to be able to do our jobs."

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com November 18 2003