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Mayor's proposed economic development solution wouldn't fix the problem

Brown, state of city 2010

There is a germ of a good idea -- and a couple of significant problems -- with Mayor Byron Brown's proposal to fold the Buffalo Economic Development Corp. into the Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency, as he announced Friday in his State of the City address.

What's good about the idea is that consolidation in this town of many silos is almost always a good idea. Both agencies are in the business of dealing with the city's economy and spending public money, much of it flowing from the federal government. True, the agencies don't have the exact same mission, but they're certainly not dissimilar or incompatible.

So, conceptually, the mayor is on the right path.

But there are at least two major problems with the proposal.

First, BURA is as screwed up an agency as BERC.

I say this (1) based on my first-hand dealings with both agencies and (2) BURA's documented track record.

Remember the critical audit of the city's use of block grant funds, in which the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development found 19 serious problems? Well, the agency responsible for staying on top of the program is, you guessed it, BURA. That tells you all you need to know.

Use whatever word you want -- inept, incompetent, indifferent -- they would all be applicable to the bureaucracy's performance.  That's not to say there aren't competent people on the payroll -- there are -- but there's not enough of them, and they work within what has historically been a dysfunctional system.

The problems don't stop with the bureaucracy. Nope, the agency's board is just as brutal, and ultimately responsible.

Keep in mind that this is the crew that last fall used its power over block grant allocations to reward and punish housing and human service agencies not for their performance, but their allegiance to the mayor. Organizations whose leaders have expressed criticism of the mayor, or operate in neighborhoods that didn't vote the right way in the mayoral primary last fall, paid the price.

Then there's the manner in which the BURA board handled proposals in December 2008 to build a waterfront hotel at the entrance to the Erie Basin Marina. The experts said to choose a proposal advanced by a consortium headed by Mark Hamister and Ciminelli Development. But the board, at Brown's insistence, instead chose a much more modest project fronted by former Common Council President James W. Pitts, which, by the way, hasn't gotten off the drawing board.

Which leads me to my other major point -- the mayor appoints a majority of the BURA board and therefore controls the agency. Given his track record, do we really want to give Brown carte blanche?

I mean, look at the current makeup of the BURA board -- Brown; Janet Penksa, his finance commissioner; Drew Eszak, the city planner Brown tried to get rid of a while back only to keep when he couldn't find a suitable replacement; Acting Corporation Counsel David Rodriguez; former Common Council member Nick Bonifacio (a Brown appointee); and three current Council members, Dave Franczyk, Mike LoCurto and Mickey Kearns.

Is this the crew you want making the decisions on economic development?

You can grouse about BERC's governing board -- please do -- but at least some of them have professional expertise. That's the byproduct of a self-appointing board that, in theory, functions independent of the mayor. In theory.

On the other hand, to sit on the BURA board, you've only got to be employed by the mayor or be one of his political supporters, or be a member of the Common Council.

No real qualifications are required -- and few are evident.

You can justly criticize the BERC board for not being a close enough watchdog of what its staff has been up to. But the problems that have landed BERC on the front page -- and in hot water -- originated with the staff.

Remember, bankers on the board had the common sense to reject a loan application by Leonard Stokes to help finance One Sunset. It was the staff that found a roundabout way to give him money. And those grants to barbershops? Staff decisions not subject to board approval. And who was the staff taking its cues from? The mayor's office.

So, if the mayor wants to merge BERC with BURA, I say, fine, provided it's led by an independent, qualified board and manned by a competent bureaucracy.

As now constituted, BURA has neither.


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City Hall still not lending to business

You want the good news or bad news first?

OK, the good news.

The governing board of the Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corp. met earlier this week and did not approve a single grant for a barbershop.

More good news. Kinda.

Mayor Byron Brown, chairman of the BERC board, showed up for the meeting. For five or 10 minutes, anyway. Then he was off. But hey, he put in an appearance, something he doesn't do all that often.

The bad news?

Eric Gadley, who BERC pays about $72,000 a year as its chief lending officer, once again gave a monthly update in which he had no new loans to report.

In fact, BERC has not made a loan since October. That's five months.

I checked our loan database and BERC over the past 12 months has made a grand total of eight loans worth $1.3 million. That works out to a loan every month and a half.

A board member asked Gadley how the loan activity matched up against BERC's goals for the year.

The answer: There are no goals.

This lack of lending has become a trend since Brown took office.

But not to worry. BERC President Dennis Penman said he expected to deliver recommendations to the mayor by the end of the week on how to reform the city's economic development and block grant programs..

If you read this blog on a regular basis, you know all about the plan. It's the one put together by some of the very people who helped create the problems that they have now come up with a plan to solve. Without talking to anyone outside their little circle.

Adam Walters, a BERC board member, made that point when he said: "There is little engagement between the front line people and this (Penman) committee. We have a front line view of what is working and what is not."

Walters also noted that he learned that Penman's committee wants all BERC board members to resign by reading about it in the newspaper.

Walters has reason to be miffed. I mean, the least Penman could have done is call in Donald Trump.

I've got a question about this firing-the-board idea.

The board is self-appointing. If everyone resigns, who appoints?

The mayor?

Hmmmm, wouldn't that be convenient?

Elsewhere during the meeting, another board member -- Tom Kucharski, president of Buffalo Niagara Enterprises -- took a shot at Larry Quinn for the letter he penned with pointed criticism of the Penman committee's recommendations. He termed Quinn's actions "juvenile."

Brave words, considering Quinn has Rob Ray on his payroll, albeit as a broadcaster these days.


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More detail on the One Sunset disaster

Stokes, leonard

Can indictments be far behind?

And perhaps a few more firings?

We've known since last spring, when Pat Lakamp and I reported on the city's bankrolling of One Sunset,that the $160,000 in loans and grants City Hall and the ECIDA put into the business were a terrible investment.

An audit done by the city comptroller that was released Monday provides more gory details.

"The use of these funds were mismanaged from the very start," the audit concluded.

City and county development officials come off as incompetent, at best, and possibly complicit in the fleecing of the public.

What's more, it's pretty clear that unknown parties flat out stole from the business.

The audit found that $27,985 of the ECIDA loan can't be accounted for, nor can $38,000 of inventory. And there's the matter of money lent to pay bills that were never paid.

Here are the "highlights:"

-- The restaurant lost money every month it was open. For example, the "business plan," and I used the term loosely, projected a $154,020 profit the first 3 1/2 months of operation. Instead, it lost $178,126. And that's not counting the sales tax that the restaurant collected, but never turned over to the state.

-- One Sunset owner Leonard Stokes's credit score was so bad that it should have disqualified him from borrowing.

-- The Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corp. made exceptions left and right to help Stokes, pictured above. His business was given a $30,000 grant without having to make a required match. BERC made additional exceptions when it lent Stokes money despite his poor credit score. The agency also failed to hold Stokes to several loan terms. Most egregious - it lent him $40,000 to pay off vendors, but he never paid the debts.

-- BERC took Stokes' word that he invested $119,000 in the restaurant without ever receiving supporting documentation. Then again, the audit said BERC never reviewed his original business plan, either. No need to, I guess, given that Pat and I previously reported that city officials who were supposed to review it actually wrote it. 

-- The ECIDA failed to do its homework before deciding to lend Stokes $50,000. In fact, One Sunset had expenses of $53,711 and sales of just $14,889 the month before the IDA awarded Stokes the loan.  

"If the ECIDA had performed adequate due diligence,as they publicly stated in newspaper reports, they would have discovered the downward trend in revenue and presumably would have never approved the new loan," the audit said.

Michelle Barron,the BERC vice president who was neck deep in the One Sunset deal, right down to buying the bar stools and helping manage the restaurant, was fired over the summer. Eric Gadley, the agency's chief lending officer whose fingerprints are also over the deal, still has his job. And that would be because why?

Likewise, no one at the ECIDA has paid a price for that agency's actions. Criticize the city all you want - please - but don't forget about the IDA.

Hey, Chris Collins, do you tolerate this kind of behavior in your businesses?

Why are you tolerating it at your IDA?

Brown on primary night While the audit doesn't address the question of Mayor Byron Brown's possible role in the restaurant deal, Darryl McPherson, the city's chief auditor, told Brian Meyer in an interview that Brown's hands are clean.

"What happened at BERC [with One Sunset] had nothing to do with the mayor," McPherson said Monday. "This wasn't about him tampering with operations."

I'm not sure what McPhearson is basing this on. I don't know if Brown played a role or not, but I'm skeptical that Barron and Gadley wandered this far off the reservation of their own volition.

I say this because (1) BERC didn't cut this many corners or ignore so many of its own policies for other business deals it has made and (2) Brown has a documented history of involvement with Stokes, most notably when he interceded right before police were ready to arrest Stokes. 

Like I said, I'm not saying Brown greased the skids for Stokes on the restaurant deal. I'm just saying.


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Larry Quinn challenges the status quo

Larry Quinn is my new hero.

Never mind that Che Guevara was my last one, and I've been eying Subcomandante Marcos as a successor. And that I'm not so sure about the Bass Pro project that Quinn has seemingly been pursuing since, well, before I had gray hair, of which I now have a lot.

Larry quinnNo, Quinn is da man because he's done a terrific Howard Cosell imitation by telling it like it is regarding the rearrange-the-chairs-on-the-deck-of-the-Titanic recommendations a panel of insiders is prepared to foist on the public under the guise of reform.

As I report in today's paper, a committee of mostly former City Hall insiders has been meeting since last fall to consider ways to fix City Hall's cluster-you-know-what management of its economic development and block grant programs.

As I reported in October, the group is populated with a lot of the same folks who had a hand in creating the problems they are now being asked to fix.

The results are predicable -- hire better people, get the bureaucracy working better and address the obvious problems.

In other words, blah, blah, blah.

Think I'm exaggerating? Let me quote directly from the draft report:

The group's primary recommendations are that the economic development programs should be the responsibility of the Director of the Office of Strategic Planning and removed from the Department of Economic Development, Permits and Licenses.

Followed by:

An integrated delivery system to carry out economic development programs should utilize all available tools both in City Hall such as Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency (BURA), Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corporation (BERC), and Buffalo Urban Development Corporation (BUDC) as well as other regional economic development partners. 

Hey, stay awake, this is important stuff.

The Executive Director of the Office of Strategic Planning should be the chief economic development officer of the City, that the Department of Economic Development, Permits and Licenses should be restructured to focus on permitting, licensing and code enforcement and that the current economic development agencies (Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corporation, Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency( BURA) and Buffalo Urban Development Corporation (BUDC) should be retained but that administrative costs need to be significantly reduced. 

OK, now I'm getting sleepy. But I think you get the picture.

Lots of trees, little forest.

Look, I'm not saying some of their ideas aren't good. Rather, they don't go far enough.

It's kind of like a doctor treating someone with gangrene in their legs who spends all his time trying to figure out how to treat the left foot.

That is kind of what Quinn wrote -- minus the puss -- in a pointed three-page critique he sent to the unfortunate soul who put the panel's ideas to paper.

I'm going to step aside for a moment and let Larry speak his piece:

Honestly, the draft report reflects more of the same thinking that has led to failure upon failure. Modeling ourselves after Rochester is like Rebuilding Baghdad with the plan for Mogadishu.

I'm sure the delivery system is an issue, but the fundamental problems are much more serious and structural. The Answer is not to once again restructure city hall and then find a smart person whose salary the partnership can subsidize. Remember Tom Blanchard and Tim Wannamaker. Step outside the partnership mind set. Don't do the same things over and over and over again.

Please reflect on the fact that the city has spent almost a billion dollars of Block Grant money since its inception. With the exception of Georgia Prospect and the first phase of Pratt Willert, it has not really built or restored a single neighborhood. The Extreme Makeover show almost accomplished as much in a week as thirty years of the Block Grant.  We need real, deep, and, some might think, radical change. Although “efficiency, collaboration, and coordination” are nice buzz-words, they don't have any real meaning in this context.

Oh, this is too good to stop just yet.

Quinn goes on to outline guiding principles for reform that include:

Every neighborhood needs a credible partner to implement the plan. City Hall directed or city-wide organizations typically fail more than they succeed. They lack focus, accountability, and resources. An approach or model like The Erie Canal Harbor Development corporation is a great alternative. The Push group on the lower west side is another. If the city had, say 5, really good corporations that had real control over their budget and could implement activities without the bureaucracy of city hall, you would see real activity like we saw on Massachusetts Street happen all over the city.

Economic Development is a regional activity. Today our economic development effort is fractured and rudderless with resources dispersed as poorly as the city block grant program. Your report does not look inward at all. I think its imperative to redefine the Buffalo Niagara Partnership (reinstating the Greater Buffalo Development Foundation should be considered), the BNE, ECIDA, NY ESDC local office etc. and change them into a dynamic force for growth.

But wait, there's more.

I would love to see the total cost the community spends on staff for the Block Grant, Partnership, BNE, BUDC, ECIDA, ESDC, BURA, State Housing Office and the people assigned from HUD. I'm sure the number is staggering. If you are serious about Economic Development you have to start with a clean sheet of paper and rebuild the structure of the whole effort. Kicking City Hall is too easy and not very effective.

And now, for the grand finale. And grand it is. My sometimes reporting partner, the sometimes suffering Pat Lakamp, terms it "the best synopsis I've seen on this issue."

With all due respect, hiring a better and more professional staff, is ignoring the fundamental need for change. I'm sure these comments will have no weight. But I do feel sorry for the person you hire. If they are honest and hard working they will be like a lamb led to slaughter. Otherwise you'll get what you usually get, some one who attends conferences looking for their next job.

Right on, Larry, right on.

His letter ought to serve as a call to arms for anyone who cares about the future of this community.

Remember, it's still the economy, stupid.

Quinn Letter


Western New York continues in a downward spiral for a lot of reasons. Some are out of our control, some  within it. Economic development policy and practices are certainly within our control.

We've been doing the same thing over and over and over again, for years and years and years, with the same failed results. Quinn, in effect, is saying, stop dealing with the parts and step back to look at the whole -- and then blow it up and start over.

What are all these agencies doing? What are they spending to do it? How can we do it better?

These bureaucracies, and the developers who feed off of them, like the status quo. It keeps the former employed and the latter neck-deep in subsidies.

It's doing nothing for the rest of us, however, other than adding to our tax burden and increasing the odds that our kids will grow up and move out of town in search of a job.

Quinn has performed a public service, which begs the question: Who is going to pick up the ball and run with it?

Update: The Buffalo Pundit has weighed in.


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Indifferent and incoherent

Let's start with the indifferent one, Mayor Byron Brown.

As Phil Fairbanks reports today, state officials were in Buffalo earlier this week to scout locations for a one-of-a-kind demonstration project aimed at dealing with the city's vacant housing crisis. A pretty big deal, especially considering the front-runner location is a 25-block swath of the West Side jump-started by  Extreme Makeover Home Edition.

Of course, the state wanted to meet with city officials and had plans to do so Wednesday.

You know what's coming.

Yep, the city stiffed. No mayor, no deputy mayor, nobody.

I'll let Phil take it from here:

A spokesman for Mayor Byron W. Brown downplayed the cancellation as a "scheduling conflict" and said the administration remains an active partner in the state's search for a location.

"We're on top of this," said Brown spokesman Peter Cutler.

If you recall, Brown pulled the same stunt in October when HUD Secretary  Shaun Donovan visited Buffalo. Chuck Schumer and Brian Higgins managed to find their way here from Washington. Brown won't leave his bunker in City Hall.


Yeah, you guessed it -- scheduling conflict.

I dunno, maybe we should give Brown the benefit of the doubt. I mean, he could have had an important meeting scheduled with, uh, Leonard Stokes.

Nah. Hizzoner has been there, done that.

More than once.

Or twice.

Nah, I think there's a pretty simple explanation.

I'll let Fall Out Boy explain.

Then there's incoherent. That's Sen. Antoine Thompson.

What other conclusion can you draw from his vote Tuesday on the ouster of  State Sen. Hiram Monserrate?

The record shows he voted in favor of removing Monserrate. Of course, he was missing from his seat when senators cast their vote. When quizzed Wednesday by our Tom Precious, Thompson said he voted against removing Monserrate.

What gives?

"I was tired and sick," Thompson said.

To say nothing of clueless.


You've got to read the full account as reported by Precious. It would be funny if it weren't so sad.

I'm not sure which is worse, not understanding the vote or believing that Monserrate should keep his seat.

I think Led Zeppelin wrote a song about this once.

Hit it, guys.


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Council members who don't pay their taxes

In this business, one story often begets another. So it is with my story today on the failure of Common Council Members Damone Smith and Bonnie Russell to pay their state income taxes.

As you may recall, I did a story on the liens filed against six of the nine candidates seeking the vacant Ellicott District seat, which was prompted by an anonymous source mailing me a copy of a tax lien filed against one of them. It prompted me to background all nine candidates.

No sooner was the ink dry on that story than someone else sent me a tax lien filed against one of the current Council members. I again cast a wider net, looking at all nine members.

My research showed that only two had had liens filed against them -- Smith, who represents the Masten District, and Russell, who represents University. In both instances, the liens included tax warrants filed for failure to pay personal state income taxes. That's pretty serious, given that Council members have taxing and budgeting powers.

I've found in my years of reporting that when you find a lien, you often find other issues, so I dug a little deeper, and sure enough, there was more there.

Not all that much on Russell --  three instances where the state suspended her car registration for lapsed insurance.

Smith was another matter.

I learned his campaign habitually fails to file his financial disclosure reports on time with the state Board of Elections. The board has obtained three judgments against him totaling $1,282, none of which he has paid.

This is bad. Not just just because of the pattern, but because Smith is president of Grassroots, the largest political club on the East Side, the one aligned with Mayor Byron Brown.

How can you head a major political organization and be so lax about following election laws?

What does that say about Smith's judgment? Or that of Grassroots, for putting him in charge?

The reaction each Council member had to my inquiry was interesting.

Russell was very open with me, much more than the typical politician. And she didn't dispute that people have a right to be upset with her. All very atypical.

Smith, demone Smith wasn't bad to deal with, although I had to pull some things out of him and he made himself scarce when I called with my final round of questions.

The primary thing I wanted to know was just how much the state determined he owed in unpaid taxes once his protests were adjudicated. The figure was presumably less than the $6,012 stated in the original lien. State officials told me they couldn't disclose what his adjusted tax liability was because of confidentiality laws, which meant I had to get it from Smith. I called his office and cell phone Thursday and Friday, and e-mailed him as well, seeking that number, but did not get a response. Smith had told me in an earlier interview that his protests had resulted in a determination that he had a refund coming,  which was presumably applied against the lien. So, just how much he ended up owing the state, beyond the $89 he paid, only Smith is in a position to disclose, and he's yet to say.

Smith has a reputation of being a loose cannon on the Council, quick to turn combative, such as when he called his colleagues "tyrants and despots" when they passed over his favored candidate, the Rev. Darius Pridgen, in favor Curtis Haynes Jr. to fill the Ellicott District seat vacated by Brian Davis.

Smith was civil and mostly cooperative with me -- and I can't say that about everyone in the Bryon Brown crowd -- but I come away from my dealings with him thinking he doesn't have his act together.

There are the big things, like failing to file a tax return for nine years and habitually submitting campaign disclosures late. And, of course, the outbursts in Council chambers.

There are little signs, too.

He's the only Council member who doesn't make his home phone available to the public, and if you can get hold of his cell number, you find out there no way of getting message to him -- his voice mail box is full and not taking messages.

Not a big deal, but telling in its own small way. Kind of unprofessional.


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Common Council needs to set its alarm clock

Common council

Mayor Byron Brown has come in for his share of criticism in this blog -- how's that for an understatement? -- and I'd like to change the object of my "affections" to the Common Council in light of Brian Meyer's story on the pending reconfirmation of Tanya Perrin-Johnson as commissioner of community services.

I don't necessarily have a problem with the Council approving Perrin-Johnson -- I don't know if she is doing a good job or not. I've heard it both ways.

But I take issue with Council members not asking her a single question about the e-mails she sent to her staff last summer all but ordering them to volunteer for the mayor's re-election campaign last summer.

Sorry, but the woman is under federal investigation. If her conduct was sufficient to prompt the U.S. Office of Special Counsel to send two attorneys to Buffalo a few months back to ask her questions -- along with Deputy Mayor Steve Casey, among others -- it ought to prompt a few questions from the Council.

Council Majority Leader Richard Fontana is among a reported six members who are prepared to reconfirm Perrin-Johnson.

"She's definitely qualified to do the job," said Fontana. "And as for the investigation, she's innocent until proven guilty."

This is the same guy who just weeks ago was leading the charge for the Council to appoint Don Allen to succeed Brian Davis in the Ellicott District. Then came word that Allen's financial history includes 11 liens for failure to pay income taxes and personal bills and a personal bankruptcy last year.


A week later, the Council came to is senses and appointed Curtis Haynes Jr.

Hey, Rich, next time we need someone's job qualifications vetted, don't call us, we'll call you.

Not to pick on Fontana. I mean, the Council as a whole isn't exactly an inspiring crew.

Yeah, the majority snipes at the mayor a fair bit, and the minority snipes at the majority, but as an institution, its bark is a lot worse than its bite. And much of the barking has more to do with narrow political considerations than broad public policy.

A while back, I took a look at its track record for reviewing and revising operating and block grant budgets submitted by the mayor and found the Council is largely a rubber stamp.

More recently, the Council was mostly mum in the face of the Brown administration jerking around community-based organizations dealing with the city's worsening poverty that are reliant on city funding.

Think of it -- when was the last time someone on the Council authored legislation involving major public policy?

It might have been Brian Higgins. 

Question: Where is the Council on the great issues of the day that confront the city -- education, crime, poverty, economic development?

Answer: Missing in action.

Just like the mayor.

Individually, there are some decent members, and Haynes in particular has potential. But as a group, they're lackluster. In this, a town crying for real leadership.

You don't find it on the second floor of City Hall - or the 13th.

As for the headline to this post -- Common Council needs to set its alarm clock -- if you don't get it, let me spell it out:

The Council needs to wake up.


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A rogue's gallery of politicians

Odds & ends for a chilly Tuesday (how soon until pitchers and catchers report?) ...

I read where the tab for Chris Collins and Tim Howard's insistence that they don't have to correct the documented mistreatment of prisoners at the county jail and holding center has hit $140,000 in outside attorney fees - and the matter hasn't even come to trial yet. At $450 an hour, things are going to get worse before they get better. Do you think his handling of the situation is one of the things Collins mentions when he is out on the stump campaigning for governor?

Mayor Byron Brown went to Albany Monday to complain about Gov. David Paterson's proposed budget, which, among other things, would trim state aid to cities by up to 5 percent. The mayor told a panel of state Senators and Assembly members that, far from a cut, Albany should increase aid to Buffalo. Hmmmm. The state is facing a multi-billion-dollar deficit, while the city has enough money in the bank that Brown wants to share the wealth by cutting property taxes. So, in effect, the gut with a fat wallet wants a raise from the guy holding a tin cup. Unbelievable. The city has been on the dole so long that it now suffers from a distorted sense of entitlement.

Senate wannabe Harold Ford made the rounds in Buffalo on Sunday -- if you can call a handful of wham-bam appearances making the rounds. You've probably read The News' account of the visit. Here's what the New York Times reported. And here's what Times columnist Paul Krugman has to say about Ford - it's not flattering.

Should girlfriend-beating Hiram Monserrate get the hook from the state Senate? Yeah. Does the party that promoted his coup partner Pedro Espada deserve the grief that comes with keeping him around? Oh yeah.

On the day Barack Obama took office I wrote that while I was hoping for the best, I was prepared to be disappointed. Well, folks, I'm disappointed. But also mindful that whatever grade I might give Obama for his first year it office, it is way better than the "Z-minus" his predecessor earned for eight years running.

I have a one-word response for those ready to toss Obama overboard for a return of the Republicans: Dubya.

If you've already forgotten the nightmare, take this stroll down memory lane.

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I rest my case.


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Curtis Haynes is not your average Council member

I sat down Wednesday with Curtis Haynes Jr. for an 80-minute interview that will be the basis of a profile I'll write sometime in the next week for the print edition. In the meantime, I wanted to share some impressions of the new Ellicott District representative while the interview is fresh in my mind.

My take on Haynes, who I had never met before, in brief: smart, progressive, serious-minded.

I will admit to being impressed, which, as anyone who reads this blog with any regularity knows, doesn't happen all that often. Or maybe I was just happy to be in Room 1408 of City Hall for the first time since Jim Pitts occupied the real estate. For some reason, Brian Davis never invited me into the inner sanctum.

Haynes might be the most educated Council member we've had, at least in recent times, having earned a doctorate. More importantly, that education, and a lot of practical experience since he graduated, is in economics. Urban economics, to be precise. That might come in handy in the nation's third-poorest city. 

At a time when some Council members have trouble paying their taxes, along comes a new guy who teaches courses at Buffalo State College that include microeconomics, industrial organization and technical analysis of financial markets.

That makes him smarter than the average bear. To say nothing of the average Council member.

Here are some other crib notes from the interview:

Haynes is well traveled. His father served in the Air Force and the family lived everywhere from California and New Jersey to England and Germany. When he took a sabbatical from Buffalo State, he bought an Amtrak pass and traveled to 26 cities across the United States.

He earned his doctorate from the University of Massachusetts, whose school of economics at the time was considered perhaps the only progressive program of its type in the nation. He's gone on to focus on urban economics, and regards his appointment to the Council as an opportunity to put his knowledge to work. He's taken his economic theory and applied it in the community through a number of initiatives, including a prototype of an academy that teaches leadership, entrepreneurial and financial skills to city residents.

Haynes, curtis 2 Haynes taught at several universities -- and prisons that were part of the University Without Walls. (When he said, "I taught convicts," I couldn't help but quip that, with that experience, he shouldn't have any problem dealing with his colleagues on the Council). He joined the faculty at Buff State in 1993 and has been voted the college's best professor three times by the student senate.

His one school-age child attends public school in the city.

Ask him what kind of economist he is and he answers "urban economist." Ask him to describe his politics and he says "progressive." Ask him to describe his M/O back in the 1990s when he and some colleagues at Buff State first ventured into community issues and he says "scholar activist."

He intends to focus on economic issues and sees the future tied to creating young entrepreneurs. "We need to find a way of linking the economy to the kids," he said. Haynes said it's time to stop chasing smokestack industries and build businesses that reflect the reality of the new economy. Knowledge, Green. Stuff like that.

Haynes does not plan to be an automatic sixth vote in an anti-Brown majority on the Council. "I'm going to be independent," he said. One of his first acts as Council member was to venture down to the second floor of City Hall in an effort to introduce himself the the mayor, whose political organization worked hard on behalf of the Rev. Darius Pridgen. Alas, the mayor wasn't in. Probably at another photo op.

He'll have plenty of opportunities to stumble along the way, but Haynes comes to the job with a lot of tools you don't often see in a freshman Council member. Most members arrive first and foremost as political animals, and, if we're lucky, learn a thing or two about policy along the way.

Haynes' challenge is to learn the politics, and they will be tricky, given all the hootin' and hollerin' that surrounded his appointment. But my hunch is that if he can figure out how financial markets work, he can probably figure out City Hall politics. Whether or not he can survive them is another story, of course.

Again, this is all first-impression stuff, but I grilled him pretty good during the interview and think I have a pretty good nose for this kind of stuff. All I can say is so far, so good, and that Haynes appears to have the potential for a big upside.

Look for a fuller profile coming to a newspaper near you soon.


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Putting the brakes to red light cameras

Buffalo is proceeding, albeit more slowly than anticipated, with plans to install red-light cameras at 50 intersections around the city. Meanwhile, the cameras are becoming a fading fad elsewhere around the country, according to a front page report in USA Today and a sidebar story.

Red-light cameras that have been gaining a foothold in many states face a growing public backlash and outright removal.

Motorists are increasingly viewing them as a money-grabbing move by government - Mayor Byron Brown thinks the cameras would provide the city $2.75 million a year, thanks to fines that would start at $50 a pop.

The pace of installations has slowed, however. Seven state legislatures have banned their use, voters have approved referendums to stop their deployment in three cities, and numerous lawsuits have been filed in Florida challenging their legality.

It's not just critics who are unhappy. One state lawmaker in Illinois who had championed the cameras is now contemplating legislation to curtail their use, saying they have not delivered as promised.

Reported USA Today:

"They were sold to us in a different manner than what they're being used for," says state Rep. Jack Franks, a Democrat. "The municipalities have put them in areas where they're just to make revenue."

He says that since 2006, crashes have increased at half the intersections in Illinois that have cameras, stayed the same at 25% and decreased at 25%.

Here in Buffalo, Brown has obtained the necessary approvals from the state and Common Council. But his administration is six months behind its original schedule to solicit requests for proposals for a system and operator, and the Council still needs to approve enabling legislation.

Might the cooling of interest elsewhere prompt second thoughts?


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