City assessor refuses to surrender post

Sara Peck

A routine City Council meeting went sour Tuesday night when outgoing Township Assessor Sharon Eckersall railed against members of the council for violating her rights.

Eckersall, who lost her re-election bid on April 7, also pledged to follow an obscure state law allowing her to continue serving until Dec. 31, even though the council wants to swear in her replacement this month.

At Tuesday’s annual Town Meeting, Eckersall did her yearly function of reporting solemnly on the fiscal state of the city. Minutes later at the biweekly council meeting, Eckersall gave an impassioned speech about what she perceived as violations of her civic rights, making allegations against the council and Ald. Steven Bernstein (4th) in particular. She then stormed out and watched the rest of the council meeting at home.

“The council has been nothing but heartless to me,” she said. “If the city continues running like this, there won’t be any candidates on the ticket, and that would be a shame since the city needs candidates, not puppets.”

Eckersall said Bernstein requested a police presence at her office on Election Day, where she was detained and her belongings searched under suspicion that she was removing things from her office. Eckersall later lost to Bonnie Wilson, who garnered more than 70 percent of the vote.

“It’s like a constant harassment,” Eckersall said in an interview after the meeting. “They constantly mudsling. They were not too pleasant (at the end of the council meeting).”

Eckersall said she was removing textbooks and her personal file cabinet that she routinely brings to and from work. Though she said she knew the identity of the person who called the police, Eckersall declined to identify him or her, sufficing to say that “I know Bernstein was involved.”

Part of the problem, Bernstein said later in the meeting, is that Eckersall’s term technically ends on Dec. 31, though Wilson is scheduled to be sworn in sometime during the next two weeks. Since the office has been uncontested for nearly 30 years, the question of term endpoints has never come up. Eckersall said the term is meant to coincide with the tax cycle.

“We found a loophole in the law,” Bernstein said to the council. “We’re talking to the state now to see if there is anything they can do about it.”

The only way to change the law would be a state-wide referendum, Eckersall said. She added that she plans to serve her entire term.

If Eckersall chooses to serve until the end of the year, the council will have to accept it, Bernstein said in an interview the day after the meeting.

“Unless she decides to resign, she will have to finish out her term,” he said. “I don’t think she’s competent … so basically I just want her gone.”

Eckersall has had a tense relationship with the council since three of her former employees sued her, costing the city $300,000 in legal fees. Eckersall said after her budget was cut from around $100,000 to $86,000, she had to lay off her only employee. Three former employees then sued because “she figured that I was retaliating,” Eckersall said.

An appellate judge dropped three of the four charges, and Eckersall said the fourth charge for defamation is likely to be thrown out.

Assessor-elect Wilson said she “has no control” over the issue but would like to start her term as soon as possible.

“I have a lot of ideas that I’d like to do but can’t until I’m in office,” she said. “It’s not my decision, but if they need someone to step in, I’m certainly ready.”

Brian Rosenthal contributed reporting.

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