FARGO – A former city sanitation worker trying to get his job back after shoving a supervisor whom he accused of making racist statements to him was rebuffed by city commissioners Monday, Oct. 30.
Elected city leaders were Aaron Cockfield’s last hope within the city’s appeals procedure, but they voted 3-0 -- with two members absent -- to uphold his division leader’s decision to fire him. Those voting were Mayor Tim Mahoney and Commissioners Tony Grindberg and Dave Piepkorn.
At the trial-like hearing, in which opposing sides laid out arguments and called witnesses, Assistant City Attorney Nancy Morris emphasized Cockfield’s violence and insubordination toward route supervisor Shawn Eckre.
Cockfield’s attorney, Leo Wilking, emphasized Eckre calling Cockfield, a black man, “boy” and other racist behavior Cockfield had complained about during his eight years with the city. Wilking argued inherent racism is why Cockfield had been fired for a first-time offense of this nature, which he said departed from city guidelines.
Cockfield said afterwards he was disappointed with the commission’s actions and expects to take legal action. “Whatever I got, it shall be given,” he said. “I would like to see them held accountable for their reaction. This is ridiculous.”
Mahoney said the incident has been hard on Cockfield’s division and many colleagues enjoy working with him. “But we do not tolerate violence in the workplace,” he said. “That’s something that we all understand.”
The city released a statement afterwards, stating: “Today’s decision reaffirms the City’s zero tolerance for violence within the workplace. The City is also committed to embracing diversity awareness among its employees and has undertaken extensive diversity training for City employees this year.”‘I got you now, boy’
Eckre was the acting supervisor on July 28, the day of the incident, according to Morris. He was away from the office when the household hazardous waste facility called him requesting a container be emptied. When two other employees weren’t available, he asked Cockfield to do the job but Cockfield twice refused. After Eckre returned, Eckre confronted Cockfield about it in the break room and Cockfield argued with him and walked over and shoved him so hard he hit a wall five to six feet away.
According to Wilking, Eckre marched aggressively toward Cockfield while yelling, causing Cockfield to stand up and push Eckre away in self defense. Eckre then reportedly said, “Oh, I got you now, boy. I got you now, boy.”
Mark Steffens, a sanitation worker who broke up the two men, said in statements that Eckre did walk over to Cockfield and Cockfield shoved him. He also verified that Eckre used the word “boy” in reference to Cockfield. But Steffens also said, “I was in disbelief how Aaron was yelling at him.”
Eckre testified he wasn’t aware the term “boy” was derogatory.
“I’m sorry, I don’t find that credible,” Wilking said. “Any adult white male in this country knows that referring to an African-American male as ‘boy’ is evidence of racial bias and prejudice.”
When Eckre said “I got you now, boy,” Wilking said, that suggests Eckre had wanted to provoke a fight and succeeded.
The attorney also cited past racial incidents at the solid waste division, including co-workers donning sandbags as if they were KKK hoods; someone putting African caricatures, such as a black statue with thick lips and a stretched neck, in Cockfield’s car parked at work; and a co-worker telling him to “go back to your mud hut.”
Cockfield told The Forum after the hearing that he has heard co-workers use the “n word” to his face.
Morris said the city did investigate Cockfield’s complaints and disciplined some workers. But, she said, the confrontation between Eckre and Cockfield was not racial in nature.
Terry Ludlum, the division head, testified that he did consider just suspending Cockfield, a punishment Wilking had suggested, but Cockfield’s actions required a harsher punishment because sanitation workers interact with the public everyday.
“Once I read the statements and saw the degree of the verbal abuse and the physical violence, I really lost all the trust that I need to have from my staff and my operators when they're going out into the general public,” Ludlum said.
After Cockfield was fired Aug. 22, he appealed to the Civil Service Commission, which voted 3-2 on Sept. 19 to uphold Ludlum’s decision.
Jane Pettinger, a human resources professional who chairs the Civil Service Commission, told city commissioners her group was divided about whether termination was necessary. She said she would’ve fired him earlier than the city, which conducted a more thorough investigation than required.