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Five Questions with Betty Jean Grant

Every Sunday, we'll publish a quick Q&A with someone from the local political world. Instead of touching on the latest in policy issues and proposed legislation, the intent is to catch a glimpse of the person behind the title. The interviews are done via email.


Erie County Legislator Betty Jean Grant dances as results trickle in on election night in November. (Derek Gee/ Buffalo News)

Betty Jean Grant

The Basics:
Age: 63
Party: Democratic Party
Job Title:  2nd District Legislator and Chairwoman, Erie County Legislature
Family: Married to George E. Grant since 1970. Three daughters and four grandchildren.
Town: Buffalo
Education: Bachelor of Science in elementary education; Master's degree in special education
Salary: $52,000.00

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A $7 million sticking point

There's a $7 million question on the table, but county lawmakers aren't talking about it.

Not during a public meeting this morning, at least.

The county late last year agreed to pay $7 million to settle a lawsuit over a near-drowning that left a woman severely brain damaged.

At issue now is how the county should pay for it. County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz, a Democrat, has proposed borrowing the money through a five-year judgement bond. Some Republicans in the Legislature want the county to pay cash for at least a portion of the payment to save on interest costs.

That's where discussions stalled. Poloncarz needs eight votes to approve a bond resolution. Democrats make up six of the 11-member Legislature. Without at least two legislators from the Republican-led minority caucus, the item can't get passed.

The issue provoked a lengthy discussion during a Finance and Management Committee meeting late last month. But this morning, when the committee met again, there was still no solution. This time, however, there was no discussion.

Legislator Timothy Hogues, D-Buffalo, who chairs the finance committee, kept the item on the table.

Why was it skipped over?

"We still haven't come to a resolution on that," Hogues said after the meeting.

The settlement payment is due in March.

--Denise Jewell Gee

Legislators want Eagan to stay on NFTA board

James J. Eagan has the support of Erie County legislators to stay on the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority's Board of Commissioners for another five years.

The Legislature voted unanimously last week to ask Gov. Andrew Cuomo to reappoint Eagan, of Orchard Park, to a five-year term on the NFTA board. Legislators praised Eagan as "responsive" to their concerns and suggestions.

Of the 11-member NFTA board, one commissioner, by state law, is appointed by the governor upon the recommendation of the Erie County Legislature.

Eagan, executive vice president and a partner of Midwood Financial Services, has served on the NFTA's Board of Commissioners since 2008. His term expired June 30.

A Democrat, Eagan also served as finance chair for the election campaign of County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz last fall and served on the executive committee of Poloncarz's transition team.

-- Denise Jewell Gee

Video: Politics Now with Bob McCarthy

The News' Bob McCarthy and Brian Meyer discuss the latest political news in Western New York, including negotiations leading to Betty Jean Grant becoming the newest chairwoman of the Erie County Legislature:

Read Denise Jewell Gee's complete story here:

Grant to lead County Legislature

Live blog from Legislature session on restoring cultural funding at 2:30 p.m.

37 arts and culturals to be added to county budget

There's been plenty of talk of Shakespeare in the chambers of the Erie County Legislature lately.

On Tuesday, the Legislature expects to put money behind all that talk.

A bipartisan budget deal that came together Friday would give $931,841 to dozens of theaters, galleries and other cultural organizations shut out of the Erie County budget last year.

That's $45,000 more than what the Greater Buffalo Cultural Alliance requested last month when it asked county lawmakers to return to funding amounts allocated in the Legislature's adopted 2010 budget.

Legislators added three organizations -- the Colored Musicians Club, Langston Hughes Institute and the Michigan Street Preservation Corp./ Nash house -- to the list.

Here's the breakdown of what the county's Finance, Management and Budget committee approved on Friday:

  • African American Cultural Center $132,411.00
  • Alleyway Theatre $7,016.00
  • American Legion Band of Tonawandas $4,677.00
  • Ballet Artists of WNY (Neglia) $10,523.00
  • Big Orbit Gallery $17,142.00
  • Buffalo Arts Studio $30,000.00
  • Buffalo City Ballet $13,096.00
  • Buffalo Naval & Servicemans Park $20,000.00
  • Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus $25,000.00
  • CEPA $47,140.00
  • Colored Musicians Club $15,000.00
  • Community Music School of Buffalo $2,432.00
  • El Museo Gallery $6,548.00
  • Explore & More $23,808.00
  • Folkloric Dance $1,871.00
  • Hallwalls $51,426.00
  • Irish Classical Theatre $73,710.00
  • Just Buffalo $51,426.00
  • Kavinoky Theatre $10,523.00
  • Lancaster Opera House $11,225.00
  • Langston Hughes Institute $15,000.00
  • Locust St Neighborhood Art Classes $10,523.00
  • Michigan Street Preservation Corp/Nash House $15,000.00
  • Music Is Art $45,000.00
  • Musicalfare Theatre $33,332.00
  • New Phoenix Theatre $25,000.00
  • Pierce Arrow Museum $4,677.00
  • Polish Arts Club of Buffalo Inc $8,000.00
  • Road Less Traveled Productions $4,750.00
  • Roycroft Campus Corporation $9,677.00
  • Shakespeare In the Park $85,710.00
  • Springville Center for the Arts $14,031.00
  • Squeaky Wheel $13,714.00
  • Theatre of Youth $51,695.00
  • Ujima Company $30,000.00
  • Western New York Artists Group $3,742.00
  • Young Audiences of WNY $7,016.00

The full Legislature will vote on the proposal Tuesday. It will then go back to County Executive Chris Collins, who could veto the measure. Legislators on Friday said they did not anticipate a veto.

View all of the Legislature's proposed budget amendments on the table here.

--Denise Jewell Gee

With Walter out, could another Republican step in?

WALTERRaymond W. Walter's election to the state Assembly has left an open seat in the Erie County Legislature.(Derek Gee/ Buffalo News File Photo)

There's a short-term gig available in the Erie County Legislature.

Raymond W. Walter, an Amherst Republican, formally resigned his 4th District Legislature seat last week to head to Albany to represent the 148th Assembly District. Walter won the unexpired term of former Assemblyman James P.  Hayes, who resigned in September to take a private-sector job.

That leaves a vacancy in the 15-member county Legislature until the end of the year.

County Legislature Majority Leader John J. Mills said last week that Republicans are considering appointing someone to fill the seat -- which represents Clarence, Newstead, Akron and parts of Amherst and Cheektowaga -- for the remaining weeks in December.

Filling the job for only a few weeks, however, may be difficult.

The Legislature is scheduled to meet at least three more times before the end of the year, and could hold additional meetings if it needs to take up potential budget vetoes from County Executive Chris Collins.

Will Walter's absence change the voting power of GOP members of the Legislature as they take up Collins' 2012  budget proposal? Not likely.

Votes are still based on a 15-member Legislature, which means it will still take eight votes to make a budget change and 10 votes to override a veto. So the Dems, if they stick together, will have enough votes to make changes to the budget, but will still need to convince at least one of their Republican-caucusing colleagues to join them to override a veto.

By January, none of that will matter. The Legislature will downsize to 11 members, and Legislator Edward A. Rath  III will take over a newly formed district representing Clarence, Newstead and northeastern sections of Amherst.

--Denise Jewell Gee


Legislators want time to examine polar bear proposal

The polar bears are heading for committee -- or at least a debate over whether Erie County should contribute a third of the $18 million price tag of a project to build a new habitat for the Buffalo Zoo's bears.

Erie County Legislature Chairwoman Barbara Miller-Williams sent the $6 million funding request to the Legislature's Community Enrichment Committee this morning after several legislators said they wanted time to examine the proposal.

County Executive Chris Collins on Tuesday surprised legislators when he sent over a request to use left over funds in several lines in the 2011 budget for the zoo's capital project.

Zoo President Donna Fernandes reiterated her concern to legislators that the zoo is in danger of losing its polar bears if it does not make progress toward its goal to raise $18 million to upgrade the habitat that houses the polar bears to meet modern standards. The exhibit was first built in the 1890s, she said. 

Fernandes told legislators during a work session today that Collins told her to secure funding commitments from the City of Buffalo and from private foundations before he would move the proposal forward. Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown has proposed giving the project $535,000 from the city's capital budget next year. 

She said the zoo has commitments for just under $8 million so far for the project.

Some county legislators have called the timing of the zoo proposal "awkward" as they complete their review of a 2012 budget proposal that would cut more than 300 county jobs.

--Denise Jewell Gee

Staff levels for county executive's office seen as 'moot' as Collins prepares to exit

Erie County Executive Chris Collins won't be in office in January, but the Legislature still set aside 45 minutes for his office to talk about the 2012 budget for the county executive's administrative staff this morning.

Nobody showed up, and Chairwoman Barbara Miller-Williams said she received no word from his staff that they weren't coming.

"We're disappointed of course," Miller-Williams said. "We're here ready to take care of the people's business. I think it's disrespectful, and I feel that we're all still in office until the end of they year. It's our responsibility to review the budget."

Miller-Williams, who also lost a re-election bid for her seat last week, placed a call to the main line of the county executive's suite when it became apparent no one was coming. She got voice mail.

Grant Loomis, a spokesman for Collins, said it is the budget department that has handled the presentation for the county executive in the past. Budget Director Gregory Gach met with legislators on Monday and has had staff present for many of the presentations this week.

"The budget department has historically handled this presentation, which is simply related to personnel lines in the county executive's office," Loomis said of the 45-minute time slot scheduled this morning. "All discussion of the county executive's office budget is moot given last week's election."

The Legislature's Finance, Management and Budget Committee has meetings scheduled throughout the week to meet with department heads to review Collins' proposal for 2012. The Legislature will hold a public hearing on the budget at 5 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 22, in Old County Hall. 

The slot reserved for the county executive's office was the first no-show of the week.

County Comptroller Mark C. Poloncarz, who will replace Collins as county executive in January after winning the election last week, is scheduled to appear before the Legislature on Friday to talk about his views on the budget.

--Denise Jewell Gee

Rath hopes for vote on cyberbullying law next week

A proposal to make cyberbullying a misdemeanor in Erie County drew only one public comment during a hearing this morning.

Crystal J. Rodriguez, executive director of Buffalo's Commission on Citizens' Rights and Community Relations, urged county legislators to pass its own local law since state antibullying legislation approved last year did not address online bullying.

"The Dignity for All Students law does not address cyberbullying," Rodriguez said. "And quite honestly, that's where the bulk of the bullying -- especially the bullying that has the most emotional effects -- that's where it's coming from."

Two Erie County legislators -- Edward A. Rath III and Raymond W. Walter -- proposed the local law following the death of 14-year-old Jamey Rodemeyer in September. Rodemeyer, a freshman at Williamsville North High School, complained of being bullied before committing suicide in September.

The proposal would make cyberbullying an "unclassified misdemeanor" that would carry a fine of up to $1,000 and up to one year in jail.

The legislation mirrors similar laws passed in three other New York counties last year. The Niagara County Legislature is also considering a cyberbullying law. 

Walter said students from Casey Middle School in Williamsville also submitted a petition with dozens of signatures in support of the proposed county law.

"We're dealing with kids," Rodriguez said. "This is something that will deter them, but it won't ruin the rest of their lives."

Rath and Walter, as well as legislators Christina W. Bove and Lynne M. Dixon, also spoke in support of the proposal during the hearing. Rath said he hopes the local law could come up for a vote during the Legislature's next meeting Nov. 17.

--Denise Jewell Gee


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About Politics Now

Robert J. McCarthy

Robert J. McCarthy

A native of Schenectady, Robert J. McCarthy came to The Buffalo News in 1982 following a six-year stint at the Olean Times Herald. He is a graduate of St. Bonaventure University, and has been covering local, state and national politics since 1992.

Tom Precious

Tom Precious

Tom Precious joined The Buffalo News in 1997 as bureau chief at the state Capitol, where he covers everything from statewide politics and state government fiscal affairs to health care, environmental and municipal government matters. Prior to The News, he worked for news outlets in Albany and Washington, DC.

Jill Terreri

Jill Terreri

Jill Terreri is an Amherst native and has covered politics and government in upstate New York since 2003. She joined The Buffalo News in 2012 and covers City Hall.

@jillterreri |

Jerry Zremski

Jerry Zremski

Jerry Zremski, The Buffalo News Washington bureau chief, has reported from the nation's capital since 1989 after joining The News as a business reporter in 1984. A graduate of Syracuse University, Zremski is a former Nieman fellow in journalism at Harvard University. In 2007, he served as president of the National Press Club.

@JerryZremski |