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Erie County Legislature’s Re-org: Let Bygones Be

Minutes before the Erie County Legislature convened Thursday afternoon, with an agenda dominated by the election of a chairperson, Cheektowaga Democratic member Thomas Mazur was asked if anything interesting had been happening behind the scenes.  “No, just some Democrats playing footsie with the Republicans again,” he replied.  It wasn’t immediately apparent, but he was really forecasting his own rejection in the contest for the chair’s position, which occurred less than an hour later.

Mazur was the only candidate besides Buffalo Democrat Barbara Miller-Williams, who had been the chairwoman for the last year.  She was voted in because of the three Democrats who bolted from their party’s nine-vote majority to join the six Republicans in electing someone who is almost universally believed to be Republican County Executive Chris Collins’ choice.

Through the previous week or so, reports had circulated that Christina Bové (Democrat, West Seneca), one of those three political apostates, had been angling to replace Miller-Williams, and that she might be close to securing the necessary eight votes.  But when the nominations for the position were opened up by County legislative clerk Robert Graber, it was Bové who rose to nominate Miller-Williams, and it was immediately obvious that there were enough votes for the latter’s reelection.

After the contentious session wound down, several Democratic legislators said they hadn’t thought Bové’s interest in the position was serious.  Lynn Marinelli (Tonawanda) called Bové’s activity “dancing around the position.”  Majority Leader Maria R. Whyte (Buffalo)—also reelected Thursday—noted that, to the best of her knowledge, Bové had never actually asked for the votes of any of the six Democrats who didn’t support Miller-Williams.  Was Bové only a stalking horse for her colleague, then?  “Who knows around here?” Whyte said with a shoulder shrug.  (Efforts to reach Bové and Miller-Williams on Friday were unsuccessful.)

What was amply evident during Thursday’s meeting was that despite the near-inevitability of the outcome, a high level of resentment lingered after the voting, an emotion which sometimes resembled personal animosity.  Speaking in support of Mazur’s candidacy to the legislators just before the vote, Marinelli said he wasn’t only well qualified, but that he “returns calls and dialogues,” an allusion to Miller-Williams’ unavailability.

Daniel Kozub (Democrat, Lancaster) called the last year under Miller-Williams’ leadership “the worst ever,” and accused her of pleading ignorance about important business before the body.  Whyte highlighted what she said was the legislature’s deteriorated public image in the last year as it kowtowed to Collins’ agendas, as she read several Buffalo News headlines that referred to legislative arguments.

In her acceptance remarks after the 9-6 vote, Miller-Williams called for members to “truly…come together,” but bygones remained operative among the six Democrats who didn’t vote for her.  Marinelli and Kozub interrupted a procedural matter on committees to inform the chair they would not serve as committee heads, and Betty Jean Grant told her she wanted her name removed from the rolls of the environmental committee.  (Marinelli told Miller-Williams that she could find committee chairs from among her eight supporters.)

Grant was particularly, and dramatically, blunt.  After Minority Leader John Mills rose to deplore the attacks on Miller-Williams’ leadership performance, Grant dismissed the objections.  The nine-vote coalition wasn’t really bipartisanship, she said, but rather an effort to “give Collins control of the legislature” so that he could fiscally savage the county’s library system, community cultural groups, and Comptroller Mark Poloncarz’s office.  She told the Republicans that “you don’t control yourselves and”—staring now at the chair—”neither do you.”

Later, Grant told Artvoice that she had believed she had a commitment to vote for Mazur from newbie South Buffalo member Timothy Whelan—who’s replacing Timothy Kennedy, a newly elected state senator.  “I told Lenny [Democratic Party chair Leonard Lenihan] about this,” Grant said, “but then Tim stopped taking calls.”  Whelan took Kennedy’s place in the three-vote Democratic split-off.

One element of the disciplinary and spoils fallout after the vote became evident Thursday night when Democratic majority counsel Jennifer Persico was told to resign by John Davis, the legislature’s chief of staff.  Like all staff save Graber, she served at the discretion of the chairwoman.  Two people with extensive knowledge of and experience in the legislature told Artvoice that, in effect, Persico was doing her job too well.  She’d won more cases for the majority than previous lawyers, one said, and Collins was especially unhappy about the latest one in December, a State Supreme Court ruling that he couldn’t legally ignore the legislature’s cuts to his budget.  Collins and Miller-Williams barely waited a couple of hours to lower this axe.

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Erie County Legislature: The Play’s the Thing

Here at AV, we leave the theatrical reviews to Anthony Chase, so I’m not going to recap the mixture of passion, sarcasm, venom, and aloofness unleashed by the members of the Erie County Legislature during yesterday’s re-organization meeting, in which a coalition of six Republicans and three Democrats elected Democrat Barbara Miller-Williams chair. If you want to watch the performances, check out the video at WNYMedia.

(Well, maybe some quick notes: Maria Whyte, your material is top-notch but you need to slow down and soften your voice—don’t go full-on Byron Brown in your delivery, but meet him halfway. Dan Kozub: One “yous” establishes character; three in tight succession is hamhanded. Ray Walter: Can you not control yourself at all? Stop rolling your eyes while others speak. You look like a snot-nosed eighth-grader. Sound like one, too. Tom Mazur: Nice touch, whistling “Le Vie En Rose” as legislators and guests drifted in before the session started.)

Rumors flew through the room in the form of text messages and whispered asides as the session progressed:

1. Erie County sheriff deputies were prepared to escort out fired staffers at the end of the meeting. (That one was true. Eight Democratic staffers and one Republican staffer were let go. The Republican/Democrat coalition created several new jobs, increasing the legislature’s personnel budget in the process, and failed in its restructuring to account for the costs of letting people go—sick time, vacation time, etc.—as well as the costs of benefits for the new positions.)

2. Grassroots founder Maurice Garner would get a job on the legislature staff. That seemed silly—Garner does well as a consultant for a big firm in Albany—and fortunately he was sitting right next to me in the gallery. He laughed and said he would not be leaving the private sector any time soon. But John C. Davis, a Grassroots stalwart and brother to Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples, will be the new chief of staff.

3. Local Independence Party chair Sandy Rosenwie will land a job. She’s tight with rogue Democrat Christine Bove, so this makes sense. No confirmation yet.

The turnover in jobs is not the real story here. While the upheaval is difficult for those who have been let go, that’s a risk political appointees live with. It’s sad that the new coalition felt the need to employ sheriff deputies to let go of these long-term employees, but that’s their choice.

I think the real story is this: The six Democrats who stood by outgoing chair Lynn Marinelli, led my majority leader Maria Whyte, have apparently decided not to let the three rogue Democrats—Bove, Tim Kennedy, and Miller-Williams—to caucus with them. They are, in effect, ceding the majority to this new coalition, which was convenient as a means for seizing power but may not remain comfortable. Can eye-rolling suburban Republican Ray Walter stay sympatico with Miller-Williams for long? How long did the Republican/Democrat coalition that upset the the State Senate last summer hang together?

By handing the reins to this new coalition, the six Democrats are saying: “This is your game now. You and your sponsor, County Executive Chris Collins, are now wholly responsible for dealing with the upside-down budgets looming in 2011 and beyond. You’re responsible for Collins’s efforts to separate county government from the business of caring for the poor and elderly. Good luck with all that.”

As if to underline their isolation, the three rogue Democrats joined their Republican colleagues in the minority caucus room for a press conference after the re-org session.


Miller-Williams New Chairwoman of Erie County Legislature

AV Editor Geoff Kelly sent this dispatch from Erie County Legislature Chambers moments ago…

Erie County sheriff’s deputies will reportedly escort EC legislature staffers loyal to the previous leadership from their offices at the end of today’s reorganization meeting.

Rumored to be among the new hires under chair Barbara Miller Williams is Grassroots founder Maurice Garner and Independence Party chair Sandy Rosenwie. However, Garner denies he’s getting a job.

Miller-Williams won a 9 to 6 vote to replace Lynn Marinelli as chairwoman.

Robert Graber remains Clerk of the Legislature. Maria Whyte continues as majority leader.

______________UPDATE____________

Click here to read the official press release, which arrived in the AV fax machine shortly after Geoff’s report.


Maria Whyte Reappointed

whyteHere’s an election contest that’s easy to call: Judge Patrick NeMoyer has ruled to strike Ralph Hernandez from the ballot in the Erie County Legislature District 6 race citing problems with his  signature petitions.

Maria Whyte will retain her seat, uncontested.


Another Voice

Here’s something that drives me crazy about the Buffalo News: the “Another Voice” column on the editorial page. It would be a nice idea, except that so often it is not given over to “another” voice. It is given, rather, to the same old voices: to people who are frequently quoted as sources in articles, who are in positions of political or economic power, to folks whose job is to push agendas—to people, in other words, who have no difficulty making their voices heard.

Today’s “Another Voice” column is by Ron Rienas, general manager of the Public Bridge Authority. None of the evasions he offers here are new, nor has Rienas lacked opportunity to make them in a public forum. He has been quoted in at least 40 Buffalo News articles in the past year. He wrote another “Another Voice” column in January.

In the past two months, the column’s authors have included incoming State Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith, who earns headlines somewhere in that state nearly every day; Tom Golisano, who can order up a microphone and reporter whenever he needs one; Erie County Legislator Maria Whyte, with whose column I agree but who already  has occasion to speak with reporters weekly; UB President John Simpson, stumping for the UB 2020 plan that is frequently the subject of articles in the news pages; Erie County Executive Chris Collins, also no stranger to headlines; and outgoing Congressman Tom Reynolds, who, it is true, has not been much in the limelight in the past two years.

And Rienas’ column today is a response to a recent “Another Voice” piece by attorney David Colligan, chairman of the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy. I agree with much of what Colligan says in that piece, but he’s another guy who hardly lacks opportunity to speak his mind: He is quoted in the pages of the Buffalo News about once a month, sometimes more often than that.

In between these privileged perspectives, the column frequently comprises articles by the mouthpieces for lobbying or special interest groups. It would be nice, I think, if “Another Voice” were afforded solely to those who are invisible in the news media, underrepresented in government, underserved by our institutions and economy.


Jobs with Justice Rally

The Coalition for Economic Justice held a rally outside of the Erie County Industrial Development Agency (ECIDA) on Oak Street Friday morning, demanding IDA reforms that would include suitable wage standards for laborers on government subsidized projects, among other things.

Speakers included Alison Duwe, Executive Director of the Coalition for Economic Justice, Lou Jean Fleron of the Cornell University School of Industrial Labor Relations, Sam Magavern, UB law school instructor and member of the Partnership for the Public Good, and Erie County legislator Maria Whyte.

The speakers stressed important points about our poor city. One, that while unemployment rates are between 5% and 7%, poverty rates are just shy of 30%. Because a local economy built on the shoulders of the working poor can’t thrive, the demonstration was intended to send a message that not just jobs, but good paying jobs are needed—and they can’t simply be pirated from the city to the suburbs to inflate job growth statistics around the county.

Magavern also pointed out the importance of reducing subsidized sprawl and rebuilding the 9,000 abandoned structures and 10,000 vacant lots within the city, while observing green building codes that will save energy and operating costs down the line.

Based on the cacophony of horns being blown by cars, trucks and buses, as drivers read the banner “A Living Wage for a Livable City,” the theme of this rally resonates with a broad spectrum of Buffalonians.

Learn more about the Coalition for Economic Justice here.