ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WSYR) — A panel of four justices at the State Supreme Court’s Appellate Division in Rochester heard from two Syracuse attorneys Monday, April 3, each arguing different positions over if the city can remove its Christopher Columbus statue.
The hearing was the latest step in the nearly five-year-long debate over the centerpiece of what’s currently known as Columbus Circle.
The debate before the court on Monday was about the character of Columbus, whether he’s offensive or honorable. The argument focused on the city’s legal rights.
“Both the property involved and the statue involved are property of the City of Syracuse,” says the city’s hired outside counsel, John Powers. “So they have the absolute authority to make decisions about where it’s placed.”
It’s been longer than 23 years, but even the city agrees the statue is in good physical shape, argues Anthony Pietrafesa, who represents the Columbus Monument Corporation.
“This statue is different than any other piece of city property,” said Pietrafesa. “It sits in the public art collection. It sits in two historic districts. It started with protections (and) decisions the city made over the last 90 years. The biggest thing was the contract it signed with the state in the 90s… which obligates the city to maintain the statue for 23 years or its useful life, whichever is longer.”
Another point of contention is the existence of the lawsuit itself. The city claims because it hasn’t finalized the plan for where the statue goes if it comes down and what goes in its place, the corporation’s lawsuit is premature.
“He made a decision,” says Pietrafesa about Mayor Walsh. “How many times has he said it? He said he wants to take the statue off, take the heads off. take the plaques off.”
But the city argues the overall plan still needs to through several steps, each of which could alter the decision. Groups that need to review the plan include the City Parks Department, the Syracuse Public Art Commission, the Community Preservation Commission and the Landmark Preservation Board.
“The court has to know what it’s actually ruling on,” said the city’s attorney. “If there’s any part of the administrative process that can change the outcome, then the case is premature.”
The Appellate Division’s current term ends Friday, April 14. The first decisions are expected two weeks later, the afternoon of Friday, April 28, but some cases can take weeks longer.
Locally-based judge The Honorable Donald Greenwood, who serves on the Appellate Division, recused himself from the case. Presiding Justice Gerald Whalen also recused himself.
Neither gave a reason for their recusal.
The panel of four to hear the case included Justices Erin Peradotto, Tracey Bannister, Mark Montour and Stephen Lindley.