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More things I think you ought to know

Come to find out, District Attorney Frank Sedita isn't the only county official who is not using the services of County Attorney Cheryl Green. Mark Poloncarz, the county comptroller, recently decided to stop using her, although he's still availing himself of some members of her staff.

Like Sedita, Poloncarz is a lawyer himself.

One could write this off as partisan politics, but I think it goes beyond that.

The zealotry with which Green has defended conditions at the county Holding Center has a growing number of people questioning her judgment.

And the fact she's won only one of seven motions and other legal arguments she's made to block federal and state efforts to address problems at the Holding Center also has people questioning her competency as an attorney.

The Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corp. canceled its board meeting last week amid a lot of chatter and speculation that Mayor Byron Brown intended to ask board members to resign en masse as part of his effort to fold BERC into the Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency.

The board meeting was canceled for reasons unexplained. My guess is that board members didn't want to give Brown a forum. Sources I've spoken with said the mayor, through intermediaries, has put out the word that he doesn't want BERC issuing any more loans or making any more grants.

Board members are peeved the mayor called for the agency's dissolution without so much as a courtesy call, much less a discussion before a decision was made.

What's more, members have a fiduciary responsibility for BERC's nearly $30 million in assets. I imagine they realize they simply can't walk away, given the absence of a transition plan. 

Maybe Carl Paladino can muscle his way into the Republican race for governor through the strength of the $10 million he says he's prepared to spend. But thus far, he's being treated as an afterthought even before he's formally announced his intention to run.

The state Conservative Party ignored his plea to hold off making an endorsement and gave the nod this weekend to Rick Lazio. Meanwhile, many press accounts outside of WNY about the competition for the GOP nomination either fail to mention Paladino or mention him only in passing.

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Things I think you ought to know

The Erie Harbor Canal Development Corp. is poised to spend a boatload of public money to rehab the old Donovan Building and lease it to someone who will therefore benefit from government largess. And who might the grand prize winner be? None other than its law firm, Phillips Lytle. Isn't that, ah, convenient. To say nothing of cozy. But hey, as one of the city's biggest law firms -- and contributors to all sort of politicians, including Sen. Antoine Thompson, Phillips Lytle has to keep up with Damon Morey, which recently relocated to Avant, another downtown office building transformed with public dollars and mega tax breaks. Ah, economic development in the City of No Illusions. 

The election in East Aurora the other day pitting candidates on both sides of the village dissolution debate was close, with the status quo people winning narrowly. But down in Cattaraugus County, voters in three villages decided enough is enough.  East Randolph, Perrysburg and Randolph all go bye-bye at the end of next year. Amazing that  someone once thought we needed different governments for Randolph and East Randolph. Think the folks in West Randolph felt disenfranchised?

Attorney General Andrew Cuomo is sniffing around about possible public pension abuses around the state, including Erie County. Gee, ya think? I think he ought to get County Legislature Chairwoman Barbara Miller-Williams on this right away.

I really liked Rod Watson's column yesterday. Although I don't think there's any truth to the rumor that a lot of the people he writes about attend rallies wearing T-shirts that sport an arrow and read "I'm with stupid."

The best reader comment I've see in some time came in response to the story yesterday about the SPCA raiding a farm in the Town of Aurora -- not to be confused with the Village of East Aurora, or the People's Republic of Central Aurora -- that was home to neglected horses and cats living in filth. 

Retorted JOHNO1:

Erie County Attorney Cheryl Green has just filed a motion in federal court to stop any interview of any horses held in the holding center unless the interviewer is accompanied by Mr. Ed.

This blog post is starting to remind me of a Rodney Dangerfield routine.


And people say I'm all outrage, no insight.


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Cheryl Green's sorry scorecard

It's spring training and time I started brushing up on keeping a scorecard.

The Bisons aren't back in town yet, so I've gotta practice on something else.

What's an outraged blogger to do?

Ah, I've got it.

Cheryl green, county attorney County Attorney Cheryl Green has been fighting federal officials tooth and nail, trying to keep them out of the Erie County Holding Center, otherwise known as Suicide Central.

How's she doing?

First, she lost a motion to dismiss a U.S. Justice Department lawsuit challenging conditions at the county Holding Center.

Next, she lost a motion that sought to dismiss a Justice Department request for expedited discovery to gain access to the Holding Center to examine its suicide prevention efforts.

Then she lost a lawsuit filed by the state Commission of Correction seeking to compel Sheriff Tim Howard  to operate the holding center in a "safe, stable and humane manner."

Why the nerve of the state.

Green went one for three in federal court Wednesday, as reported by Matt Spina.

The judge rejected her demand that she sit in on Justice Department interviews with inmates scheduled for next week. Ditto for her motion that would have required DOJ consultants to formally depose county employees in order to ask them about suicide prevention efforts.

The judge did uphold her demand for depositions when DOJ attorneys, rather than consultants, do the questioning.

Let's see, that makes her one for six.

With that batting average -- .167, for the record -- she'd be headed for the minors if she was playing for the Bisons.

The low minors, at that.

I guess that explains why Green's boss, County Executive Chris Collins, gave her the OK to retain an outside law firm at $425 an hour to handle the Justice Department's suit against the county for conditions at the Holding Center.

With her batting average, would you want Green handling your legal affairs?

I mean, District Attorney Frank Sedita is no dummy, and, while entitled to the representation of the county attorney when sued by former Assistant DA Mark Sacha, he essentially said "thanks, but no thanks" and hired his own counsel.

By the way, since she began her legal jihad -- no doubt with Collins' approval, and, probably encouragement -- five inmates have hanged themselves at the Holding Center. Little wonder that the center's suicide rate is almost five times the national average for county jails. 

But I'll give her credit for what's being dubbed the "Extreme Jail Makeover."

On second thought, the cleanup is akin to wiping away fingerprints at a crime scene.


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Progress, of sorts, on the Bass Pro project

No, no, Bass Pro hasn't stopped hemming and hawing about whether it will actually commit to building a store at the foot of Main Street.

Rather, the Common Council has gone on record in favor of a community benefits agreement for the Canal Side project. A unanimous vote, in fact. As in, Mickey Kearns and Damone Smith actually agreed on something.

You can argue the specifics of the CBA -- and people will, over the coming months -- but the mere fact a community benefits agreement is being seriously discussed represents progress.

I say this because a CBA for Canal Side would represent one of the first instances in this town in which a wide range of specific public benefits would be more than an afterthought in the construction of a publicly subsidized development.

Think of the ways in which government has thrown hundreds of millions of dollars of subsidies at businesses, be it deeply discounted hydropower to industry via the New York Power Authority to big tax breaks to downtown businesses under the Empire Zone program to yet other big tax breaks granted to businesses by industrial development agencies.

Suffice to say, looking at the economic landscape in the nation's third-poorest city, the subsidies have worked better for the businesses that have gotten them than the public that has doled them out. That's in part because there has been little built into the subsidies by way of real benchmarks and accountability.

A community benefits agreement changes that. In the case of the resolution passed by the Council, a CBA for Canal Side would:

... ensure that small local businesses — not just big- box retailers — would be accommodated and nurtured. For example, one clause would set aside three-quarters of all retail space that is not part of the Bass Pro development for locally owned, independent businesses.

The pact also would set local and minority hiring goals for temporary and permanent jobs, require builders to use environmentally friendly "green" technology and include affordable housing.

One of the most controversial provisions would require businesses with more than 20 employees to pay a living wage, a rate that is higher than the state's minimum wage.

It behooves both the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. and CBA advocates to find a way of negotiating an agreement. Not that there wouldn't be a need for compromise.

For a guy like Larry Quinn, a mover and shaker on the Canal Side board, a CBA would show that he means business when he says this town needs to take a different approach to economic development.

For CBA advocates, getting a deal in place would represent a first of sorts, which would give them something to build on. The Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy has mastered the art of negotiating CBAs, and I suspect its first deal wasn't perfect. But it was a start to bigger and better things.

As for whether Bass Pro ever puts a shovel in the ground, well that remains to be seen. But it's very likely something is going to happen at the foot of Main Street, and a CBA could help promote a better return on the public investment.

Whether the project as proposed represents a good public investment is a question for another day.

Elsewhere in the blogosphere, the Buffalo Pundit has some thoughts on the Council's action.


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City planning director by default

Not to get on Brendan Mehaffy's case before he's had a chance to hang the pictures on his office walls -- from scattered reports I've heard he's a fairly sharp attorney -- but Byron Brown has hired a city planner who has never worked as a city planner.

Yeah, a look at his resume shows he has a master's degree in urban and regional planning and his work as an attorney has involved planning issues. All that helps.

But the job of a city planner is to be a planner, not a lawyer, and one could argue that having an experienced planner is especially important in a town that has a history of terrible planning decisions.

That's one issue. The other is that, as best as I can tell, Mehaffy is the only job candidate Brown interviewed.

If you recall, the city did an extensive search for a planner more than a year ago and offered the job to Michael Kimelberg, a Buffalo native working in Seattle. He accepted the position, then had second thoughts and turned it down. 

Suspecting that the administration did not conduct a new job search, and hearing City Hall was having a hard time getting candidates to accept the job after Kimelberg turned it down, and further suspecting Brown and Co. didn't interview anyone in recent months other than Mehaffy before offering him the position, I e-mailed Cutler the following:

Peter: I have a few questions related to the hiring of Brendan Mehaffy.
What kind of job search was involved - local, national? How many candidates applied for the post? How many were interviewed?
While he's had experience dealing with planning as an attorney, he hasn't worked as a planner, which could be regarded as a pretty big hole in the resume. What was the rationale in bypassing someone with experience as a planner?

Cutler responded with this:

There was as you may recall a national search that resulted in the initial announcement of Michael Kimmelberg, but he withdrew.
Drew Ezak continued in the role on an interim basis and did an admirable job.
The Mayor ultimately chose Brendan Mehaffy, with the support of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, based his broad experience and knowledge, which I think is evident in both his resume and his professional employment.
To help you understand better his excellent qualifications, I’ve listed below some of his more notable academic and work experience:
Academic & Professional:
· Planning Degree
· Law Degree with a Community Development Focus (no joint MUP/JD program when I went to UB)
· 18 months in Kansas City working for a national land use law firm writing comprehensive plans, zoning codes, and subdivision regs for municipalities around the country
· 3 years in Buffalo working for a land use/environmental firm litigating urban renewal plans, zoning code, environmental matters, and working with developers and planning firms
· City attorney assigned as counsel to Planning Board, Zoning Board of Appeals, and Parking (which is planning)
· Deputy Director of the WNY American Planning Association for 3 years, member of the national APA for 6 years
· Committee member on the Buffalo SmartCode Initiative
· Elmwood Village Design Committee Member (until I became a City Attorney)
· Longtime Member of Partners for a Livable WNY

Peter didn't exactly answer my questions, so I responded with this:

Is that to say you drew on the pool of applicants from the search that resulted in the Kimmelberg hiring?

More importantly, who, besides Mehaffy was interviewed this time around before the decision was made to go with him? I'm not looking for names, but number of candidates who got interviews.

Cutler's response:

The Mayor went with the person he believes will do the best job, especially in light of the plan to reconfigure the city’s overall economic development activities.
I don’t know why a number is so important to you, Jim. We’ve got an extremely experienced and talented person to do a very important job.

That, of course, did not address my questions, so, being the pain-in-the-butt reporter that I am, I asked one more time:

I want to know if anyone else was interviewed, and if so, how many of them. Based on your response thus far, my hunch is that no one else was called in form a formal interview. Please confirm, correct and, if you so desire, otherwise enlighten.
As for experience, yes, he has it as a lawyer. It does not appear from his resume that he has worked a day as a planner, however.

I sent that e-mail last Tuesday and I haven't heard from Cutler since. My experience as a reporter tells me that when you ask three times "how many job candidates were interviewed" and you don't get a straight answer, it means that the only guy interviewed was the guy who got the job.

Mehaffy's hiring is not the end of the world. He might work out.

In fact, he's likely to work out better than some of the other folks Brown has hired into key positions, although I realize that may be damning with faint praise.

Perhaps more telling is what this says about how undesirable City Hall has become as an employment destination for top-shelf talent.

I mean, to find our new planning director, Brown only looked nine floors up in City Hall, where Mehaffy was working as an assistant corporation counsel. He's the lawyer Brown entrusted the negotiations with the Olmsted Conservancy, which the administration came close to tossing out in the street despite the stellar jobs it has done.

The hiring also raises questions about just how diligent the Brown administration is being in filling other top jobs. We've been promised national job searches in filling the top jobs in the police, fire and economic development departments.

Is the mayor breaking a sweat in trying to recruit and hire the best and brightest? Or will he and Steve Casey be satisfied in hiring loyalists who will walk with petitions, host fund-raisers and do as they're told.

It's not like they haven't done it before.

There was the appointment a few years back of Karla "Too Much Information" Thomas to a secure six-year term as Human Resources commissioner.  She had some paper credentials, but I suspect they didn't count as much as being president of Grassroots, the political club with close ties to the mayor, and being a longtime sidekick of Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples, a Brown ally. 

I can envision a scenario in which Acting Police Commissioner Dan Derenda -- who is tight with Casey, has contributed to the Brown campaign, and whose family apparel business has done business with both the city and mayor's re-election committee -- gets the appointment as H. McCarthy Gipson's permanent successor.

After a "national job search," of course.


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Digging us deeper in debt

What comes after going from bad to worse?

Because folks, we're headed there.

Spitzer wearing socks.

Bruno wearing handcuffs.

The $4 billion deficit.

Caroline Kennedy.

The coup.

The counter-coup.

The $6 billion deficit.

Hiram Monserrate

Paterson's campaign drama.

David Johnson.

Paterson calling Johnson's girlfriend.

The $9 billion deficit.

And now -- a drum roll, please -- Lieutenant Governor Richard Ravitch's proposal to put us deeper in debt by borrowing $6 billion over the next three years and whittling away at the deficit over the next five years.

What's more, his proposal is getting a serious look from a fair number of leaders in Albany, including Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.

Big surprise there, huh?

This crew obviously believes in wasting a crisis.

To say nothing of avoiding hard decisions.

Not everyone is on board. Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli, for one, is among them.

“New York state has been addicted to unaffordable borrowing and unsustainable spending. Now is the time to break that addiction,” he said.

His plan calls for, among other things, a cap on state debt and more transparency in budget negotiations.

Senate Minority Leader Dean Skelos doesn't like Ravitch's plan, either.

Nor should they.

Nope, it's time to break the addiction to Albany's tax-and-spend ways and balance the budget - now.

To go, as Dr. Winston O'Boogie once said, cold turkey.


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Barbara Miller-Williams is not leading by example

Miller-williams 2

Barbara Miller-Williams is absolutely correct when she says she's playing by the rules in working a boatload of overtime in order to boost her pension benefits. As a Buffalo cop, she is clearly within her rights to do so.
But, as chairwoman of the Erie County Legislature, one could also argue that she is tone deaf.

The taxpaying public is sick and tired of public employees milking the system for every penny they can lay their hands on. In this case, the $84,159 in overtime she's picked up the past three years -- including more than $51K last year -- will boost her annual pension by an estimated $14,000.

When that public employee also happens to be one of their top elected officials, well, I can anticipate what the reaction will be. It won't be pretty.

Add to it this the fact Miller-Williams is putting in only 15 to 20 hours a week as chairwoman.

On one hand, that's a good thing, because the Police Department prohibits officers from working more than 20 hours a week at an outside job.

Then again, do we really want the chairwoman treating her $52,000-a-year position as decidedly part-time gig?

And probably running on fumes part of the time when she's performing her legislative duties. I mean, she's been working an average of 60 hours a week for the past year, year-and-a-half. On top of that, one weekend a month she's off doing her duty as a member of the Army Reserves.

What's left in the tank to perform her legislative duties?

This could be a moot point when Miller-Williams retires from the police department at the end of the month. But it does raise a question as to just how diligent she is in approaching the job.

Moreover, it puts her, and by extension, her colleagues on the Legislature, in a potentially awkward position the next time they ask rank-and-file employees to make contract concessions to save the county money.

Suffice to say, the Legislature's leader has not led by example.


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Why aren't we treating this as a crisis?

State Education Commissioner David Steiner and Buffalo Schools Superintendent James Williams are bickering about whether the graduation rate among city students indicates stagnation or progress.

Depending on the benchmarks, the numbers released by the state Education Department show modest to no real improvement.

Using the Class of 2005 as a benchmark, Steiner notes that the city's four-year graduation rate inched up only one percentage point, to 53 percent in 2008. And that factors out more than 800 students held back in eighth grade because they were deemed not academically ready for high school.

Williams, using the Class of 2006 as a benchmark, says the graduation rate went from 45 to 57 percent and hails the Class of 2009 rate, including kids who graduated after attending summer school, as a marked improvement.

Yeah, I know, dubious.

High school students

The quibbling over the numbers mask an indisputable reality.

More than four out of 10 high school students are failing to graduate from high school on time. We're talking some 1,050 kids for last year's would-be graduating class alone.graduating

Anywhere from a quarter to a third of high school students have dropped out in recent years. We're talking anywhere from 500 to 1,000 kids a year.

The numbers are depressing, regardless of the racial group, and especially bad among Hispanics. The graduated-on-time percentage for them was 45 percent, the dropout rate 32 percent, for the 2009 graduating class. For blacks, it's 55/23. For whites, 64/21. 

Stagnation? Progress?

I have a better word.


Yeah, crisis.

Why isn't this, and why hasn't this, been treated as a crisis?

Education is as close as it comes to a silver bullet to social ills. Crime, poverty, you name it. If you want to know why we rank as the nation's third-poorest city, look no further than the aforementioned numbers.

Yeah, there's more to it than that -- industrial decline and all that -- but if we want to get back on our feet, we've got to make sure more of our kids are getting an education. Our city is populated with thousands of high school dropouts, and they function as an economic albatross.

Pin our abject failure on poverty if you want, but there is a growing body of research that shows high expectations and a smart educational system can make a big difference. Of course, that requires commitment and fresh thinking, something in short supply in this town when it comes to our schools -- among other issues.

City funding for its schools has remained flat in real dollars while costs have spiked, and we've left it up to the state to make up the difference. 

Neither Mayor Byron Brown nor anyone on the Common Council has rolled up their sleeves and tackled education as a serious issue, despite its importance to the city's future.

So, blame the politicians, but also blame the voters. 

Turnout for the last school board election was a pathetic 5 percent. Compare that to the nearly 60 percent of Iraqi voters who showed up at their polling stations a few days days ago, despite bombs going off left and right.

The BTF? As a union, its primary obligation is to look out for the economic well-being of its members, but it would be nice to see them loosen their grip on their cosmetic surgery rider.

Lazy or indifferent parents? Yes. Absolutely.

Not enough money to do the job? Please. We're spending some $20,000 per student per year. That's not chump change.

Long story short, we as a community need to treat low graduation rates as a crisis. A freakin' crisis. And we need to do it now.


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What to make of Massa's hissy fit

Is it just me, or is Congressman Eric J.J. Massa starting to come off as a bit of a nut job?

He'd have us believe that the ethics charge filed against him is some sort of conspiracy related to a Democratic push to pass health care reform.

Massa Gee, I don't think anyone would have expected him to get his shorts tied up in such a knot that he'd go off and resign. I mean, the filing of an ethics charge is just another day at the office for a Congressman like Charles Rangel.

Me thinks there is more than what meets the eye.

Either that, or Massa is unstable or paranoid. Agreeing to go on the Glenn Beck show suggests both.

But the guy does give good quotes. Consider this from The New York Times:

Mr. Massa singled out Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, for criticism, calling him the “son of the devil’s spawn” and “an individual who would sell his mother to get a vote.”

Mr. Massa, a freshman member of Congress, said he had had a turbulent relationship with Mr. Emanuel since his early days in Congress. He said they had an argument in the House gym over Mr. Massa’s refusal to support President Obama's budget.

“I am sitting there showering, naked as a jaybird, and here comes Rahm Emanuel, not even with a towel,” Mr. Massa said, adding that Mr. Emanuel poked “his finger in my chest, yelling at me at me because I wasn’t going to vote for the president’s budget.”

“You know how awkward it is to have a political argument with a naked man?” he continued.

As Karlya Thomas once said, "too much information."


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Taxpayers, Chris Collins and the Holding Center fiasco

This talk out of the Chris Collins camp about putting taxpayers first is getting tired. To say nothing of phony.

The latest utterance was reported over the weekend, when flak Grant Loomis said a decision on whether to appeal an order issuedby U.S. District Judge William Skretny to allow Justice Department investigators into the Erie County Holding Center will be based on "the best course of action for county taxpayers."

Ah, Grant, the best course of action for county taxpayers is to do everything possible to avoid the multi-million lawsuits that are likely to stem from the growing number of suicides at the Holding Center.

If it were really about taxpayers, the county executive wouldn't be paying lawyers more than $400 an hour to defend the indefensible at the Holding Center. Or be pushing for a pay raise for the guy who runs the joint.

But you see, Grant, it's really not about the taxpayer.

If it was, Matt Spina wouldn't have reported what he did the other day, that some of the top managers in the Sheriff's Office pad their paychecks for work that's not relevant to their duties.

Erie County grants its unionized corrections officers and jail deputies 15 minutes of overtime pay each day to start their shift 15 minutes early, so they can attend that day’s briefing by higher-ups.

Several sheriff’s administrators, even though they are not unionized employees, can collect lineup pay, too — a half-hour daily. Some of the highest-ranking supervisors, already granted six-figure salaries and take-home vehicles, collect lineup pay.

For example, the benefit added more than $9,000 each to the 2009 salaries of Undersheriff Richard Donovan and Administrative Coordinator Brian Doyle ... 

Lineup pay added $9,020 to Koch’s salary in 2009, when he averaged 2.5 hours a week in lineup duty, which would be considered normal for an administrator who can receive 30 minutes of lineup pay daily. But he collected those 2.5 hours a week even during vacation weeks, payroll records show.

And here's the kicker -- I'm told the management guys don't actually have to show up for the lineups to collect the pay.

Ah, Grant, that's called "no show."

Usually not a good thing for taxpayers.

But it does conform with Collins' mantra of running government like a business.

As in, give the guys in management all sorts of perks, regardless of whether they deserve them or not, and  demand givebacks  from the working stiffs.


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