Niagara County legislators were tripping over each other Thursday to dissociate themselves from a blog report that asserted that county Refuse Disposal District Director Richard P. Pope had become the front-runner for county manager.
The report on Niagara Times, a blog that reflects the views of the county Republican Party hierarchy, asserted that in a GOP caucus last Saturday, "the temperature in the room" showed a swing toward Pope, a Republican who's run the Refuse District for 17 years. He was the only current county employee to apply for county manager, replacing Gregory D. Lewis, whose contract runs out Nov. 30.
More controversially, the blog said that a Democrat on the search committee had contacted the Republicans to explore the notion of trading his vote for Pope for a GOP commitment to hire an unnamed former Democratic officeholder from Niagara Falls for a vacant county department head job.
The search committee has three legislators of each party plus a tiebreaker in the form of Legislature Chairman William L. Ross, a Conservative who caucuses with the GOP.
All three Niagara Falls Democrats on the committee made haste to deny the story.
"I don't sell my soul for anybody," said Dennis F. Virtuoso.
"I have not had any conversations with anyone on the Republican side," said Renae Kimble.
"I have never spoken to the Republican majority about it, nor would I ever trade a vote for
a position like that," said Jason J. Cafarella.
On the Republican side, Paul B. Wojtaszek of North Tonawanda called the report "premature."
The blog specifically said that Wojtaszek was reluctant to support Pope, a distant cousin of his, for fear of giving the appearance of impropriety. That would be especially unwelcome since Wojtaszek wants to run for a State Supreme Court judgeship this fall.
"Until we get to the last phase, I'm not putting my name behind anyone," Wojtaszek said.
But it looked at previous search committee meetings as if Wojtaszek was supporting Jeffrey Glatz, Orleans County nursing home administrator and former North Tonawanda Board of Education president, for county manager, calling him "a diamond in the rough."
The blog reported that the Republicans were hoping by means of the alleged horse trading to avoid a tie vote on a manager recommendation that Ross would have to break.
"I don't know what they're talking about," Ross said.
Wojtaszek said, "That's not the way I operate. No one's approached me."
Search committee chairman Gerald K. Farnham and Legislator W. Keith McNall didn't return calls for comment.
But Majority Leader Richard E. Updegrove, R-Lockport, who is not a member of the search committee, denied that he and his colleagues talked about any specific candidates Saturday.
"We haven't discussed that. We're putting a lot of faith in the search committee. I urged all legislators to be part of the process, even if they're not on the committee," he said. "We didn't have a conversation about any individual candidate."
But Ross said, "If we have candidates in-house, I want them to get a darn good look . . . I always like inside candidates. I think Mr. Pope is worthy of consideration."
Kimble said she thinks Pope is unqualified.
"Is there a new world order? First [Niagara Falls] city administrator and now this? You want to have somebody who's in charge of a garbage dump for county manager?" she asked.
She was referring to Donna Owens, the Falls city administrator, who before taking that job was deputy commissioner of solid waste services in Atlanta; street and alley cleaning officer in Washington, D.C.; and a solid waste analyst in Baltimore.
One Democrat, who asked not to be identified, theorized that the Niagara Times post was a diversionary tactic to shift attention away from Glatz, whom this Democrat thinks is the Republicans' real favorite.
But it seems too clever. After all, the Republicans have 15 votes in a 19-member Legislature, and a working majority on the search committee, too, with Ross' vote. The bottom line is that if the Republicans are unified, they can put across anyone they want without a need to play games.
-- Thomas J. Prohaska