The current reign of Rochester Mayor Tom Richards won't last long. The acting mayor, sworn in on January 1, said Tuesday he will resign. Richards wants to avoid the distractions of a federal inquiry into whether his candidacy in an upcoming special election violates a decades-old law governing public employees.
Walking away, however, is the last thing Richards intends.
The former city attorney and deputy mayor, was appointed acting mayor after Bob Duffy was sworn in as New York’s Lt. Governor. He announced his resignation at a hastily-assembled news conference at City Hall Tuesday morning.
“I believe in my heart the best thing to do here is for me to resign,” said Richards.
The resignation is effective Thursday, and Richards says he will focus his efforts on the upcoming special election for mayor.
With a federal inquiry looming into whether his candidacy in the special election violated the federal Hatch Act, Richards said he didn’t want the issue to distract from city business.
“I do not want that to be the subject we talk about for the next three months,” said Richards.
The Hatch Act prohibits some municipal employees from seeking political office, especially those who oversee federal money, or whose job is federally funded. Richards says he's not in violation. Still, he doesn’t want to risk possible fines, which could be charged to the city if an inquiry determined laws were violated.
“I came here to help the city, and not to have it risk fines or penalties,” said Richards. “The possible loss of even one federal dollar is too much to risk.”
Jim McTiernan, head of the city firefighters union, filed the Hatch Act complaint in mid-December, two days after city council -- in a behind-closed-doors meeting -- voted five to four in favor of a special election to replace Duffy. McTiernan favors a general election. He expects Richards decision will prompt more candidates to run for mayor.
“Maybe we can open the process a little more now,” said McTiernan. “Council has to do some soul searching as to how it ever got out of control like this.”
Richards resignation means Rochester will have had three mayors in three weeks. Under city charter, neighborhood and business development director Carlos Carballada becomes acting mayor.
“I'm doing this out of respect for (Tom) because I know what he's trying to do for the city,” said Carballada. “I believe he is the right person at this time for the city.”
Richards says his decision to resign effectively puts an end to both the Hatch Act complaint, and the inquiry – a point confirmed by a spokesman for the U.S. Office of Special Counsel. Richards and others question the motive, as to why the complaint was
filed in the first place.
“To call this an absurd application of the law would be an insult to all the absurd things in the world,” said Joe Morelle, State Assemblyman and head of the Monroe County Democratic Committee. Morelle says by quitting to focus on the special election, Richards is taking the high road.
“Tom Richards stepping down today to run for mayor is exactly the reason Tom Richards ought to be mayor,” said Morelle. “He's thoughtful and prudent. He's putting the city interests first instead of his own interests.”
City council must still set a date for the special election. It is expected to be held March 29, a point council expects to finalize when it meets next week.
“I think we have to get back to doing the business of the citizens,” said Lovely Warren, city council president. “I think this issue and others have clouded the work we need to do on behalf of our citizens.”
Last month, at Warren’s urging, council postponed a vote on setting a special election date, after the Hatch Act complaint and inquiry came to light.
Richards believes he could have fought the Hatch Act complaint, and won. But, he says, that would have distracted from real issues, like downtown development, crime and poverty -- in a city facing a potential $50 million deficit.
He’s stepping down -- but certainly has no plans to leave.
“I'm committed to seeing this through,” said Richards. “I'm in it to stay, and in it to win.”
Former Rochester Mayor Bill Johnson responded to Mayor Richards' resignation.
In a statement, Johnson said:
"The implications of this announcement are very troubling. It presumes that City Council will proceed with plans to call for a special election this winter, rather than prevailing upon Mr. Richards to 'act as mayor' for the balance of this year, in order to allow for a more orderly fall election under the City Charter.
Today's announcement presumes the continuing denial to the citizens of this community of their most fundamental right to freely elect the candidate of their choice for the most important elective office in the city."