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Who needs Jay or Conan with Sarah? And other observations

Random thoughts on another cold and dreary day in the City of No Illusions:

It's time the Common Council selected a successor to replace Brian Davis. It's going on two months since Davis resigned his Ellicott District seat, the Council has interviewed all the candidates, and Democratic committeemen have finally made their recommendation. Please, put us out of our misery.

I can't help but notice the number of subsidy deals being approved by the Erie County Industrial Development Agency that have little to do with industry or creating a significant number of good-paying jobs.

The deal cut between Erie County Executive Chris Collins and Legislature Chairman Barbara Miller-Williams to provide $300,000 in funding to the Colored Musicians Club, while eliminating funds earmarked for other projects, looks even more dubious with the news that Miller-Williams' husband is vice president of the club's board of directors.

I realize that some of Gov. David Paterson's rhetoric aimed at the State Legislature amounts to self-serving hot air and that some of the more ambitious proposals he has floated may be more for show than anything. But it's still good to hear someone at his level of public office tell it like it is.

With Sarah Palin slated to appear regularly on Fox News, do we really need Jay Leno or Conan O'Brien for televised laughs anymore?

It's been a long time since I saw as contrived a controversy as the one involving comments Sen. Harry Reid made about Barack Obama during the presidential campaign.


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A closer look at Darius Pridgen

It looks like we're down to three candidates to replace Brian Davis on the Common Council - The Rev. Darius Pridgen, Bryan McIntyre and Curtis Haynes Jr. Brian Meyer has the latest developments in today's paper.

Pridgen is bound to be the subject of additional speculation and scrutiny, given his narrow victory Saturday with Democratic committeemen. He now stands as the party's recommended candidate to the Common Council, although party Chairman Len Lenihan sounds like he's holding his nose in pledging his support.

Just a question before I proceed, in light of the fact a quarter of Ellicott District committeemen failed to show up for the vote Saturday. What could possibly be their excuse? Lame, really lame.

But I digress.

Let's put to rest the question as to whether Pridgen is Mayor Byron Brown's preferred candidate. That was answered Saturday when Barbara Miller-Williams, chairman of the Erie County Legislature and an ally of the mayor, nominated Pridgen and Grassroots committeemen voted for him en masse.

McIntrye, meanwhile, showed he has his own base of support, given his narrow loss to Pridgen. The vote, once the field was narrowed to just he and Pridgen, was so-co close with a weighted vote of 3,325 to 3,152. A change in vote by just one committeeman would have swung the vote to McIntyre. 

Haynes was a respectable, but distant third in the balloting leading up to the final round of voting. He drew his strength from a faction headed by Champ Eve.

Haynes did well enough to not blow his chances with the Council. Some members are impressed with his credentials as an economist, to say nothing of his affiliation with Eve, who, shall we say, is not on the mayor's Christmas card list. Then again, Eve's backing is a double-edged sword, as it makes some Council members uncomfortable.

Don Allen is bye-bye. A front-runner of sorts with the Council last week, his candidacy drew flies among committeemen. More importantly, his history of financial troubles, which I reported on Saturday, has suddenly made his candidacy a non-starter with his former supporters on the Council.

One of the things I turned up in my public records search of the nine-candidates - what Pridgen owns and doesn't own - has been the subject of some comments on my blog and story published Saturday. Moreover, it's been the subject of a growing amount of chatter in the community. 

As a follow up to my research from last week, I made some phone calls Monday, including one to Pridgen, and here's what I can report.

PridgenFor starters, contrary to rumor, Pridgen does not own a Hummer. He owns a beater of a pick-up truck, a 1995 Dodge Dakota, and a 2005 Saab, which Pridgen said his son drives. He also leases a 2010 Cadillac.

Pridgen lives rent-free in a three-bedroom townhouse at Erie Basin Marina owned by his church, True Bethel Baptist. The church paid $299,000 for it in June 2007.

It's assessed at $218,500, and the property enjoys an exemption worth $1,500 because a member of the clergy lives there. Contrary to one of the rumors circulating, the townhouse pays city and county taxes that come to $5,142.79.

Now, there are folks out there who are gonna say what in the world is an inner-city church doing buying waterfront digs for its minister, a guy who drives a new Caddy to boot?

Pridgen didn't hesitate to explain.

The townhouse functions as as the church's parsonage, which was formerly housed on Humboldt Parkway. True Bethel bought the old parsonage, which Pridgen said was in rough shape, for under $100,000, fixed it up, and eventually sold it for about $300,000. The church used to proceeds to buy the townhouse at Harbor Commons for cash.

Pridgen defended the purchase in part by noting the church decided to invest in the city rather than the suburbs, and essentially said that other ministers live in nice digs, so why shouldn't he?

"'Why should I be any different than any other pastor?" he said.

Well, one could argue that most ministers are not living in waterfront quarters. And there's that thing about his church being located in the inner-city.

"Our people drive in from 10 different zip codes," he said. "To me, (the criticism) smacks of classism - that if your church is in the inner-city, you shouldn't have anything decent."

As for the Caddy and Saab, Pridgen makes no apologies for being affluent enough to afford them. He's worked since he was 15, learned to invest his money wisely and has worked hard and smart over the years.

"I don't think it's a bad thing, I think it's an asset," he said of his wealth.

I've gotta tell ya, I kind of like the guy's attitude, at least when it comes to being enterprising. 

He's clearly a go-getter, having grown his church from 40 to 4,000 members which is active on all sorts of fronts. He owns a couple of businesses, plays a role in the Subway restaurant located at the church.

What's more, unlike many of the political people who are supporting him, starting the the mayor, he takes phone calls from nosy reporters and answers their questions head on.

All this is not to negate questions people have about whether he would act independent of the mayor or why Davis has supported Pridgen's candidacy so enthusiastically.

Or questions as to what Pridgen's attitudes are towards gays,a significant constituency in the Ellicott District, or how how such a busy person can put in the hours required of a Council member, especially since he's already left elected office once citing competing demands for his time.

And then there's the dramatics he's interjected into his campaign - packing the Council chambers with his supporters when he was interviewed, and having some of the them circle the building a few weeks back when he was being interviewed by committeemen in an effort to evoke the the biblical story of the Battle of Jerico in which the Children of Israel circled the city seven times until its walls came tumbling down.

Kinda weird, if you ask me.

That said, Pridgen, in my recent, albeit limited, dealings with him, has displayed a charisma, a candor and a go-get-'em attitude that I find kind of appealing. Certainly not the norm in City Hall.

Don't take that as an endorsement - not that it would be worth anything, anyways - but rather an acknowledgment that there's more to the guy than simply the political company he's been keeping of late.


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Vetting the Ellicott District candidates

There was a letter in my mailbox when I returned from vacation Monday that included a copy of a lien filed against one of the candidates vying for the vacant Ellicott Common Council seat. The lien was big enough to be newsworthy, but, to be fair, I felt the need to background all nine active candidates.

The result of that research is published in Saturday's Buffalo News. It ain't pretty.

Six of the nine candidates have had liens filed against them over time for failure to pay taxes, bills and, in one case, a parking ticket. One has been prosecuted in Housing Court, another keeps getting his car registration yanked for failure to pay city parking tickets or his auto insurance. And so on.

Only one candidate came away from my review of public records squeaky clean, Curtis Haynes Jr., a Buffalo State College economics professor.

Don allen Two others had the most serious problems. Donald Allen, pictured at left, a former city community services commissioner, has had 11 liens filed against him, seven for unpaid taxes, which total $47,180. He also filed for bankruptcy last year.

Federal and state tax officials have filed three liens totaling $14,011 against attorney William Trezevant. All the liens were paid off in fairly short order.

The rest of the candidates had comparatively minor, but not necessarily insignificant, issues with liens and what-not. 

I don't think most voters expect their elected officials to be fault-free when it comes to these kids of issues. But keep in mind that Council members make decisions involving hundreds of millions of dollars a year, and if some of the Ellicott wannabes have had trouble managing their own money, well, we ought to know about it.

A second point of relevance: These candidates are seeking to fill the seat vacated by Brian Davis, who my reporting last year revealed as a deadbeat, among other things. Isn't it ironic that six of the nine people who want to succeed him also have histories, to varying degrees, that involve a failure to pay their bills?

Whether my findings are grounds to disqualify anyone from the seat is not for me to say. That's up first to Democratic committeemen who meet this morning to vote on which candidate to recommend to the Council, and ultimately to Council members, who are expected to appoint a successor by the end of the month.

No matter the outcome, the decision makers have some useful intelligence to work with. The kind of information that I'll bet voters wish they had the last time Davis stood for election. If they knew then what they know now about Davis, I'll bet we wouldn't be having this conversation.

Update: Democratic committeemen selected the Rev. Darius Pridgen as the party's recommended candidate in a close vote on Saturday. The final decision rests with the Common Council. For all the details, read Bob McCarthy's account.

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Something cooking for Saturday

No fresh post for today, am tied up with major story involving candidates seeking Ellicott District seat on the Common Council that hopefully will publish Saturday.

In the meantime, the Buffalo Pundit is kicking, ah, butt, and taking names regarding the change in leadership at the Erie County Legislature and assorted political maneuverings involving Chris Collins and Steve Pigeon, among others.

Two angles from Albany

There's lots to digest from Gov. David Paterson's State of the State address. For right now, let's talk about his proposal to eliminate the Empire Zone program.

Tom Precious explains:

A new Excelsior Jobs Program would be created under the Paterson proposal, with a focus on high-tech and clean energy jobs. It would expand research and development tax credits for companies engaged in those sectors and offer new money for capital investment by private firms. Firms in high technology, biotechnology, clean energy, and finance and manufacturing sectors would also get special tax breaks if they create and maintain a set number of jobs over five years.

At first blush, the proposal sounds like a step in the right direction, dare I say forward thinking, at least so far as the push to promote high-tech and clean energy. Western New York has particular potential in the latter.

This much is certain. Just about anything would be an improvement on the Empire Zone program.

The first-blush response from business interests is not positive. No surprise, given that Paterson wants to end corporate welfare as they know it. 

MaziarzAlso noteworthy out of Albany is news that George Maziarz is one of two Republicans to gain an appointment to a Senate Committee. He'll head up the Energy Committee, which he chaired for a spell in the final year of the GOP's control of the Senate the year before last.

Yes, he's from WNY, and yes, this might give him some leverage, or at least a bully pulpit, when it comes to the New York Power Authority, and yes, in theory, that's a good thing.

But I expect that Maziarz, for the most part, won't use the power of the chairmanship for much more than narrow political purposes. 

He was holding hands and otherwise cuddling with NYPA when George Pataki was governor and his appointees controlled the authority. Along came Eliot Spitzer, followed by Democratic control of the Senate and -- BANG! -- the authority became his public enemy No. 1.   

Maziarz became what I consider a phony populist, criticizing, after the fact, the relicensing deal involving the Niagara Power Project and blasting the authority for not allocating power to companies that were seeking outrageously generous subsidies and a modest increase in rates to municipal utilities outside the region that enjoy deep-deep-deep discounts.

Meanwhile, for years, when he held influence on the Energy Committee when the Republicans were in charge of the governor's mansion and the Senate, Maziarz did nothing to help WNY get a better deal from NYPA.

Among his legacy of failure:

  • Not pushing legislation, or otherwise working behind the scenes, to get WNY its fair share of the profits generated at the Niagara Power Project.
  • Ditto for revising the criteria for how local industry gets NYPA power to rein in subsidies that, in the extreme, total as much as $150,000 per job, per year.
  • Being a non-factorwhen the region was negotiating with NYPA when the authority sought to extend its license to operate the hydropower plant in Lewiston. Thanks to Rep. Brian Higgins, the region squeezed some extra money out of NYPA, but not nearly as much as WNY might have otherwise secured.

The contracts for big power customers will be renegotiated this year and look for Maziarz to push for a continuation of the status quo. That would allow him to posture as saving jobs, while also positioning himself for big campaign contributions from the corporations that would benefit from more business as usual.

Mariarz's appointment raises another concern -- just how did the Senate leadership decide that he should be one of only two Republicans to get a committee chairmanship?

Could the hand of Steve Pigeon be involved?

Let's see. Pigeon is chief counsel to Pedro Espada, the Senate majority leader, who, last June, bolted to the Republicans for a spell.

Moreover, Maziarz has been playing footsies with Pigeon and Tom Golisano for a couple of years, as evidenced by the $10,000 Responsible New York contributed to the Maziarz-controlled Niagara County Republican Committee in October 2008.

The Albany Times Union and New York Daily News have more details on the Maziarz's appointment.

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City Hall is adrift

The Common Council is complaining that Mayor Byron Brown still hasn't hired a new permanent corporation counsel to replace Alisa Lukasiewicz, who, fed up with Steve Casey, stepped down in May.

Gee, if there's anyone in town who needs a lawyer, you think it would be Byron Brown.

The problem goes a lot deeper than the administration's failure to hire a replacement for Lukasiewicz, however.

The city has 11 departments and six of them are now managed by acting commissioners. Some of the vacancies go back nearly two years.

The boss just got whacked in three of the six departments now operating with acting commissioners -- police, fire and economic development. Brown has promised national job searches, which means it's going to be spring at the earliest before the new hires are on the job.

Question: Why didn't Brown start the job searches months ago to avoid a lengthy gap?

I mean, does it makes sense for the city to go months and months without an economic development commissioner? If a company called City Hall today wanting to do business with the city, who would it talk to?

The delays in hiring commissioners for strategic planning, management information systems and the law department suggest we could be waiting well past the spring for Brown to hire people to run the police and fire departments, and oversee economic development.

Tim Wanamaker left his post as executive director of the the Office of Strategic Planning in March 2008. No replacement has been hired.

Robert Leach was fired as chief information officer, also in March 2008. Raj Mehta heads the department on an acting basis.

Lukasiewicz has been gone more than seven months and David Rodriguez continues to serve in an acting capacity. Folks in City Hall keep asking him if he's going to get the permanent appointment and he keeps saying he doesn't know.

What's the holdup in hiring replacements?

I don't know, but I can speculate.

It could be hard to find people to take the jobs. The pay isn't great, considering the responsibilities, and Brown and Deputy Mayor Steve Casey have run enough administrators out of the building that a lot of qualified candidates may have been scared off.

It also might be that Brown and Casey are failing to hire on purpose. It fits their MO of concentrating power on the second floor. I mean, what acting commissioner in their right mind is going to assert themselves? 

So, who are we left with?

Finance Commissioner Janet Penksa keeps getting more and more duties. Steve Stepniak heads up public works. Martin Kennedy is commissioner of taxation and finance. All three seem to be on solid ground.

The two remaining commissioners have been under fire. Tanya Perrin-Johnson, she of e-mail fame, could face an uphill fight getting Common Council approval to continue on as commissioner of community services. Karla Thomas has enhanced job security as commissioner of human resources, but suddenly finds herself as the new poster child of what's wrong with City Hall.

I'm not sharing too much information, am I?

City government is a sprawling operation that requires all hands on deck. Right now, Brown is playing with a half a deck -- at best. He's really down to just three commissioners he can count on.

It's no wonder why things are falling between the cracks. The signs of inefficiency, and worse, are everywhere.

The long delays approving contracts to human service providers.

The double payment of health insurance premiums.

The forever and a day it took to submit a plan for taking over the parks system and keeping the Olmsted Conservancy on the job.

The One Sunset scandal that has yet to move the mayor to reform the Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corp. or even show up at meetings to fulfill his obligation as chairman.

Folks, this is no way to run a railroad, much less a city.

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Bad even by City Hall standards

There have been blatant political hires in City Hall who haven't worked out for like, forever, and it looks like we've got a doozy in Karla Thomas, commissioner of human resources.

Brian Meyer reports in today's Buffalo News that Thomas, when told by city auditors that her department made double payments for health insurance for up to 250 sanitation and water division workers, resulting in a $526,309 overpayment, she responded by saying "TMI," as in "too much information."

She followed up a week later by telling the city comptrollers office to take her off the e-mail list that discussed ways of solving the problem.

A City Hall commissioner who shies away from e-mail. Who'd a thunk it?

Comptroller Andrew SanFilippo, who is not known for throwing verbal hand grenades, used "meltdown" to describe the conduct of management in the department and "mess" to describe the current state of affairs.

Mayor Byron Brown, meanwhile, is standing by his commissioner. No talk of taking the department in a different direction, as he did last week in announcing the sacking of the police and fire commissioners.

Thomas makes nearly $90,000 a year and has one of the most important jobs in City Hall, with responsibilities that include labor relations, civil service and the administration of employee benefits. While she held a similar title with the Erie County Water Authority, she got the city job in 2008 because of her political connections.

At the time of her appointment she was chairperson of Grassroots, which can be loosely defined as the mayor's political organization. Previously, she has served as chief of staff for Crystal Peoples, another Grassroots mainstay, when she served on the county Legislature.

Some credentials, huh?

While Thomas gave up her Grassroots title when she took the city job, my sources tell me she's still deeply involved and doesn't always bother to take her political work outside City Hall.

I'm told she met a few weeks back with The Rev. Darius Pridgen in a skull session to figure out how he can maneuver his way into the Ellicott Council seat vacated by Brian Davis. She also was neck deep in Brown's re-election campaign last year.

You'd think with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel sniffing around City Hall for possible Hatch Act violations, Thomas might be a little more discreet. Then again, the Brown-Casey crew isn't known for its  subtlety.

Unlike most other commissioners, Thomas does not serve at the pleasure of the mayor. Instead, thanks to state law, she's got a six-year term that extends to September 2014 and can only be removed before then for just cause. Like, in not doing her job. If pressed, Brown no doubt will use her status as grounds for not moving against her.

But keep in mind Brown had no such reservations when he had his staff look into ways of trying to get rid of Len Matarese, Thomas' predecessor who he inherited from Mayor Anthony Masiello. Brown and Casey made Matarese's life so miserable he finally left on his own accord.

Thomas appears to have no such worries. As one frustrated city employee told me during last year's mayoral campaign, the Second Floor doesn't much care what kind of job you do 9 to 5 so long as you do the political work after hours. 

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What to make of Brown's house cleaning

It looks like Mayor Byron Brown is going to clean house, of sorts, to start off his second term.

Police Commission H. McCarthy Gipson, Fire Commissioner Michael Lombardo and Economic Development Commissioner Brian Reilly are all out.

You could see the Reilly dismissal coming since the summer, what with the slick move to get his live-in girlfriend health insurance via the taxpayer, the fallout from One Sunset, etc. I was among those who initially thought Reilly had potential, but in retrospect, he wasn't cut out for the job.

Brown has turned to the Buffalo Niagara Partnership for help in finding a successor, which I find troubling. Let's face it, the Partnership is a special interest group, and not a particularly effective one, to put it diplomatically.

It's not just that Brown has turned to it for help in hiring a replacement for Reilly, but Dennis Penman, the acting head of the Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corp., has included several folks from the Partnership in closed-door discussions with economic development types in an effort to come up with recommendations to the mayor on how to fix the city's approach to economic development.

Again, why, given the Partnership's track record?

Gipson's removal as police commissioner also comes as no surprise. He hasn't exactly been a dynamo and sources tell me there's been friction between the commissioner and both the mayor's office and other members of the police brass.

I'm a wee bit surprised -- and, from what I understand, a lot of rank-and-file cops are relieved -- that Deputy Commissioner Dan Derenda didn't get the top job. He's tight with Deputy Mayor Steve Casey, he gave generously to the mayor's re-election campaign and his wife's apparel company did quite a bit of business with the mayor's re-election campaign the past year.

The removal of Lombardo as fire commissioner has a lot of people scratching their heads, in part because Brown at first refused to discuss his reasons, then cited overtime costs, which strikes some folks as hollow. I suspect there's more to it, especially given South Common Council Member Mickey Kearns' description of Lombardo .

"[He] wasn’t a yes man. He was someone who spoke his mind,” Kearns said.

Bad career move. Mr. Commissioner.

As one former member of the Brown Administration explained to me a couple of months ago, you're not allowed to say "no" to Brown and Casey. At least not if you want to keep your job.

What are you guys in the fire halls hearing? Comment below or e-mail me.

I take some heart in hearing that the mayor plans on conducting a nationwide job searches to fill the vacant positions.The police department, in particular, could use some fresh thinking at the top. And City Hall's approach to economic development is in need of a top-to-bottom overhaul.

However, as I said last week, the administration could have difficulty attracting top-shelf talent, given the way Brown has allowed Casey to run roughshod over department heads. Any job candidate who does their homework is likely to think twice, then a third time, about coming on board.

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