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More of our history goes up in smoke

For years and year and years, mayor after mayor after mayor has fiddled about saving historic buildings while the structures continue to burn, rot and be stripped bare by thieves.

The latest to go up in smoke is a row house at the corner of Woodlawn and Masten avenues. It stood for nearly 120 years before burning in four hours on Friday.

Woodlawn row houses

David Torke has a slide show of photos taken at the scene at his blog, Fix Buffalo Today, which are worth a look. He also expands on the fire, the property's history and the city's stewardship since it took ownership. (Torke's blog is one of the best of the local variety and worth checking on a regular basis. I do.)

Update: Torke added a slide show to his site today with photos of the demolition work that started this monring.

As I report in today's Buffalo News, the row houses have sat vacant for nearly a decade. The city took title in 2002 after the previous owners stopped paying taxes on it. Torke has choice words for what he considers the city's neglect of the property and its complicity in the fire, but City Hall officials said they've made a good-faith effort.

Michael Clarke of the Local Services Support Corp., one of the smartest guys I know on development and neighborhood issues, told me:

"There's little attention paid to making historic preservation a priority. If you're going to make historic renovations a priority, you have to do more than advertise the availability of properties on a city Web site or at an auction. You have to be willing to say 'this is a priority' and work with a developer to find all the resources necessary to put a deal together."

The city, in its defense, has only so much money to go around. I understand.

But when you look at the way its spending that money, you see a big investment under Mayor Byron Brown in market rate housing in and around downtown. Not so much in distressed neighborhoods.

I don't know if restoring the row houses would have made economic sense.

But I do know that the property suffered while under city ownership -- having been stripped of anything of value by thieves during the time it was vacant, including the last seven under city control -- because City Hall has no plan to secure and otherwise mothball properties. The Woodlawn row houses aren't the only historic property that has been put at needless risk.

I also know that whatever the cost - Jim Pitts said he could have brought the joint back to life for $150,000, a non-profit had lined up $500,000 in resources for the job, while a city inspector estimated the cost at $1 million - the expense per unit would have been, at worse, about half as costly as what is being spent to build houses in Sycamore Village.

I can also appreciate that the city wants to target its resources and that the row houses are not located within one of the selected areas.

But given that the state just put $35.8 million into the Performing Arts School kitty corner from the row houses, I have to wonder why properties across the street from a refurbished school aren't in some sort of target area. This is an issue across the city, one that the mayor promised to address two years ago, but it remains on the "to do" list. At least at the corner of Masten and Woodlawn.

Update: One informed reader, having read Peter Cutler' comment in today's story that the Woodlawn row houses are not in a targeted zone, sent me this incredulous e-mail today:

Is he kidding? Not a target area? They apply to HUD and receive the OK for designation of a Neighborhood Revitalization Strategy Area, a target area program, that includes Woodlawn.

They transfer city-owned properties to Stenhouse along Woodlawn and Michigan - one block from the rowhouses, and it's not a target area?

They work with NRP and Belmont (before pulling the rug out from under them) with a lot of the sites right there in Woodlawn, Glenwood, etc, - and it's not a target area?

I begin to wonder if Peter ever reads what he says after the fact and confuses himself.

What about it, Peter?

One thing I can't understand is why the burned-out row houses were left unsecured for three days after the fire.

I stopped by Friday evening to take a look and noticed that the front doors were open. I started up the steps to look around inside, then remembered being told that many of the floors were burned and that the place was a hazard.

I stopped.

Curious neighbors, especially kids, might have continued up the steps, not knowing what I knew.

I drove by again Sunday evening and the doors were still wide open.

"This is bad," I thought to myself.

It wasn't until Monday morning, after the city awarded a bid for an emergency demolition, that the property was secured -- sort of --  with a fence around the perimeter. No boards on the door, mind you.

The wreckers are scheduled to get to work this morning, but Torke is among those who will tell you that the city's demolition of the property began the day it took title.


 

 

Byron Brown is stonewalling

Buffalo News Editor Margaret Sullivan usually has a pretty long fuse - except, maybe, when she's got to deal with me. So when she goes off on someone, they usually have it coming - except for me, of course.

On Sunday, Madame Editor went off on Mayor Byron Brown, who, trust me, has it coming.

The cause of her ire is the Brown Administration's failure to adequately respond to numerous Freedom of Information requests filed by her reporters in recent months, including yours truly.

Says the boss:

The law is clear. When we request city records, you must provide them, completely and in a timely manner.

But you aren't exactly following the law at the moment.

You're stonewalling.

So, with all due respect, Mayor, cut it out.

And, with all due respect, Editor, you go, girl.

Things have reached a head with a Freedom of Information request I filed June 19. It's now August 9, and I'm still waiting for much of the information. And most of what I have received is either incomplete or provided in a format that makes it cumbersome, at best, to digest.

And I've been told by city attorneys that they won't provide much of the information until 70 business days have passed after my request. I did the math, and their projected release date would come just after the mayoral primary. 

Coincidental?

I think not.

In fact, I know not.

My colleague, Sue Schulman, meanwhile, has been waiting even longer for records on city subsidized housing.  She's been waiting months and months for this information, but not as long as the  data  she requested on the city's animal shelter, which she's been waiting on since the calendar read 2008.

This from a mayor who claims he's all about transparency.

Yeah, right.

The stonewalling on releasing public records is part of a pattern.

Remember the brouhaha last summer when I reported the police department had started stripping crime reports of basic information, such as location of crime scenes, in retaliation for news coverage the brass objected to?

Or his "I know nothing" response to the hit-and-run antics of his son, before junior finally fessed up in the face of unrelenting news coverage?

It's just not reporters who get the runaround.

When the Common Council had questions about the block grant program, it had to resort to filing FOI requests with the administration and then - you guessed it - had to wait and wait for what turned out to be an incomplete response. To get the information it wanted - and was legally entitled to - the Council had to threaten to use its subpoena powers.

Talk to the folks at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and they'll tell you that when they went to review the city's block grant program, which is funded with federal dollars, they encountered a "it's none of your business and we're not telling you" attitude on the part of Brown Administration officials. 

And when the local HUD office released the audit - a scathing document that found wall-to-wall problems- Brown went screaming to housing officials in Washington trying to silence Steve Banko, who heads the local HUD operation. It worked. We haven't heard a peep out of the talkative Banko since.

Then there's the mayor's growing propensity to hide from the press.

Got a tough question? It's become Peter Cutler's job to answer them.

The best chance many reporters have of getting hizzoner to answer a question is to show up at his campaign appearances and shout out a question. Even then, you're more likely than not to get an evasive answer, often along the lines of "I didn't know that was happening," or "I won't comment on that because it's the subject of an ongoing investigation."

Think I'm kidding? Read this.

Many of his underlings are following the mayor's example. His staff at BERC won't return phone calls, much less answer questions, for the most part since the One Sunset expose and some damning follow ups. Ditto for some of Brown's commissioners, although, in their semi-defense, Deputy Mayor Steve Casey has brow beaten so many of them that I can understand why they are gun-shy about talking to the "enemy."

Again, at the end of the day, it's just not reporters who are getting frozen out.

I did a story last December on Brown's first two years in office based on a survey responded to by 150 civic, political and business leaders and their biggest beef was the mayor's lack of accessibility.

At the end of the day, Brown and his administration are the custodians, not owners, of public records. There are laws in place that govern their release that mayor after mayor, among many public officials, have learned to live by. It's past time this mayor did likewise.

No picnic for state taxpayers

Let's see, the state is $2.1 billion in the red, just three months into the fiscal year.

Hey, let's have a picnic!

Let's hold it in Niagara Falls, but invite folks from all over -- Buffalo, Grand Island, the Town of Tonawanda.

Let's tell everyone by printing and mailing notices via first-class mail.

And let's do it at taxpayer expense.

That, in a nutshell, is the story of the picnic hosted Wednesday by State Senator Antoine Thompson.

I was one of the thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of registered voters in his 60th Senate District to receive a mailed invitation earlier this week inviting me to a cookout in Hyde Park. Me, I live in North Buffalo. A buddy who lives on the West Side received one too.

ThompsonCookout2


We received our invitations not a day too soon. It landed in my mailbox Monday, just two days before the event. It gave me and other recipients barely enough time to figure out which lawn chair to bring and pair of shorts to wear. 

There are 161,550 active registered voters in the district. With first class postage going for 41 cents a pop, I sure hope not everyone received an invitation. That would come to, let's see, $71,082, plus the cost of printing. And don't forget about the cost of the picnic itself, which was "free and open to the public," according to the invitation. 

I called Thompson's office Thursday afternoon to see how the picnic went. I was told by Heather Zeisz, his press secretary, that about about 200 people attended.

Zeisz at first said she believed every household in the district received an invitation, at least in Niagara Falls, although she wasn't sure how many were mailed as opposed to simply handed out. She later said "a few thousand" were mailed, but she wasn't sure of the number.

I asked her how the senator could justify this kind of expense, especially given the state's fiscal condition.

Said Thompson's press secretary: "I don't speak for the senator." 

Don't speak for the senator?

"I only give statements based on what he is saying," she said.

Ah, OK.

Zeisz gave me a call back a little later to say she has spoken with her boss -- who was unavailable to answer questions from me directly -- and wanted to relay that he's "a strong supporter of constituent relations and constituent outreach. This was just another event to increase participation."

Nothing about costs, besides the invitation comes out of the senator's mail budget. In a story I wrote last October, I calculated that Thompson spent $107,579 for the last year that data was available.

That's some $2,000 a week, folks.

With no hard figures on the cost of this particular mailing, I decided to punch a few numbers into my calculator.

Let's see. If Thompson dropped $5,000 in printing, postage and picnic food and supplies, and he got 200 people to show up, the cost works out to $25 per head.

Kind of a pricey picnic, wouldn't you say?

At $10,000, the cost is $50 a head.

How about $20,000? You see where I'm headed.

Then again, people have spent a lot more money of late to break bread with Thompson.

Why, just last month, he helped to host a fund-raiser at the Buffalo Chophouse in which fat cats paid $5,000 per head to chow down with Thompson and other Senate Democrats, including Malcolm Smith and our very own Bill "Stickin' with Stachs" Stachowski.

Of course, they slipped in behind a curtain to shield themselves from protesters who, in Thompson's words, were "out there performing."  In the same breath, the senator informed a reporter that he is a "man of the people."

Well, maybe, Antoine.

If nothing else, you've reminded us that it's no picnic being a taxpayer in the Empire State.

Chris Collins plays politics with economic development

Getting Kathy Konst to take the job that includes responsibility for economic development may be a good political move by Chris Collins, but I fail to see how it advances the county executive's professed desire to bolster the local economy, which he has pegged as Job One for his administration this year.

I mean, is the county's top economic development position really a place for on-the-job training?

Read Konst's bio on the county Web site and you learn that her background, beyond politics, is largely in education, marketing and public relations. Oh, and she's big on family values.

Yeah, she's also head of the Lancaster Chamber of Commerce, but I think that doesn't count for much. Going from a town chamber to commissioner of environment and planning is kind of like jumping from AA-minor league ball to the major leagues. Usually, some seasoning is called for. 

Making the jump may be OK in a community that has a vibrant economy, but this is Buffalo. The place is beyond dysfunctional when it comes to economic development, and adding a player feeling her way along does not help. We're far removed from the days when a Rich Tobe occupied the job.

Beyond that, the move is so transparently political.

The timing of Konst's appointment, and therefore resignation from the County Legislature in an election year, leaves the Democrats in the lurch and improves the odds that the Republicans will pick up one of the seats that Collins is craving.

Yeah, all is fair in love, war and politics. But, given the county's executive desire to quarterback the region's economic recovery, I have to wonder why he's handing the ball off to a second-stringer.

All I can say is it's a good thing Chris Collins isn't political.

For another take, check out what the Buffalo Pundit has to say.

New boss at BERC

What to make of the appointment of Dennis Penman as the interim president of the embattled Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corp.?

For starters, it buys Mayor Byron Brown a little bit of breathing room, at least with the downtown business crowd. Penman initially served on the board of the Erie County Industrial Development Agency as a representative of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, and I suspect that Partnership connection came into play with this BERC appointment.

Penman is a housing developer by trade, but he's no stranger to economic development agencies. He served as ECIDA chairman as Joel Giambra's choice to head the board the final two years of Giambra's term as county executive. Currently, Penman is vice chairman of the Buffalo Urban Development Corp., which operates under the umbrella of the ECIDA and appears, at least from a distance, to be one local development agency that's actually doing a decent job.

So far, so good.

He's also not regarded as a Brown guy. He's given the mayor's campaign only $1,000, and that was back in 2005. That almost makes him a virgin among developers who do business in the city.

Then again, he hasn't been doing any business in the city since Brown took office. His MJ Peterson was a favorite of Jimmy Griffin and Tony Masiello when they were running the show. Assisted by subsidies from the city, MJ Peterson built 800 to 900 houses and condo and apartment units with a value of upwards of $100 million. It built much of the housing you see scattered around the East Side.

Penman wasn't just a developer, but a real mover and shaker with City Hall back in the day. One housing veteran I spoke to Tuesday described him as "the ultimate insider."

Among other things, Penman helped the city secure $12.8 million federal funds back in late 1990s, and Masiello rewarded him by giving MJ Peterson a  big piece of the action to build housing in the Home Ownership Zone. The program, however, turned into such a mess that the feds eventually shut the program down for a year while the city got its act together. There was plenty of blame of pass around, involving both the city and developers, and the problems took some of the sheen off Penman and Company. Their subsequent construction of two houses on contaminated land at the Sycamore Village subdivision and a resulting squabble diminished their stature further.

Put another way, Penman comes to the BERC job with both credentials and baggage.

I spoke to him by phone Tuesday about his appointment as president of BERC, and he made these salient points:

While he's president, which, in the case of his predecessor, the deposed Brian Reilly, meant responsibility for overseeing the day-to-day operations, Penman said he expects to operate "more as a chairman of the board." He doesn't expect to be a daily presence around the office, which raises a question as to who is going to be watching the coop.

Penman doesn't view the appointment as long term -- "I don't want to make a career out of it, I'm in the development business, not government," he said -- but he's willing to stick around for a while, six months, maybe longer. His objective is to provide what he termed "transitional leadership," working with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the consulting firm of Dennison and Associates to develop a turnaround plan for BERC. Penman said the emphasis will be importing best practices from economic development agencies around the nation and doing a better job of coordinating BERC's activities with other agencies, economic development and otherwise, both inside and outside City Hall.

While he wanted to stress what he sees as positives at BERC, starting with what he considers "a solid board" and a couple of bright young staffers, Penman gave the agency an overall grade of "somewhere below middle, a tad below mediocrity."

Give him a "B" for diplomacy.

Finally, I asked Penman about concerns about conflicts of interest, given all the business he's done in the city over the years.

"We haven't done any business in the city for four and a half years," he said.

If an opportunity to do business arises that posed a potential conflict, Penman said, "I would resign from this position."

So, there you have it. Suffice to say, a lot of folks, including those with subpoena powers, are going to be following what BERC does under Penman's watch.

  

Another federal investigation of City Hall

Local and state employees involved in programs funded in part or whole by the federal government aren't supposed to use their positions to influence elections. Not to push for campaign contributions, not to encourage or direct subordinates to work on political campaigns. Not under the Hatch Act.

Someone forgot to tell Tanya Perrin-Johnson before she sent out a series of e-mails "encouraging" members of her staff to work on Byron Brown's re-election campaign.

Now, the federal Office of Special Counsel has opened an investigation to determine whether the e-mails represent a violation of the Hatch Act.

There's no way of knowing where the investigation may lead beyond Perrin-Johnson and her e-mails if investigators put their minds to it. Well, actually there is. It could lead all over City Hall.

For example, Dana Bobinchek, a top aide of the mayor since his days in the State Senate, was copied on the e-mails. So, one would assume, she might also be under scrutiny.

It's not just that she was copied on the Perrin-Johnson e-mails. As one of the mayor's top aides, I've got to assume she interacts with a lot of city departments, almost all of which receive federal funding. Police, Inspections. Economic Development. etc.
 
Or how about Jessica Magglietto, director of the CitiStat program, which tracks the performance of city departments? She's also neck deep in the mayor's campaign, among other things, as a go-to person for folks who want to contribute to the mayor's re-election campaign. 

But Maglietto, Bobinchek and Perrin-Johnson, who, by the way, has lawyered up (Joel Daniels), could be small fish compared to Deputy Mayor Steve Casey.

Casey has his fingers in every pie in both City Hall and the mayor's re-election campaign, and if you don't think he isn't using his position as deputy mayor in ways that benefit the campaign, well, you don't know how the Second Floor really operates.

Mayors in many cities put some sort of firewall between their office and their campaigns. Not Byron Brown, however. He in-sources, not out-sources such work. I mean, who else has his campaign manager also function as his deputy mayor?

I'm told Perrin-Johnson and others are concerned about the e-mails because if they violate the city charter, they run the risk of prosecution on criminal charges, albeit misdemeanors. Hatch Act violations carry civil penalties -- interesting civil penalties.

If the Merit Systems Protection Board concludes there are violations of the Hatch Act, it could give the mayor two choices -- fire the guilty parties or face a loss in federal aid worth double the salaries of those involved.

The investigation by the Office of Special Counsel could do a lot to promote reform of over-the-top political activity at City Hall that existed long before Byron Brown took office. It might help advance legislation sponsored by four Common Council members that amounts to a city version of the Hatch Act that the mayor's allies on the Council so far have stymied.

Then again, if City Hall was respecting the Hatch Act, there might be much less of a case to be made for a local version.

Update: A reader gave me a heads up on this document, The Perils of Politics in Government, a Review of the Scope and Enforcement of the Hatch Act, which is a byproduct of U.S. Senate hearings held in October 2007. I found pages 36-43 and 67-75 (on the PDF page counter, as opposed to the document) to be particularly relevant.


  

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