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Five to Four

Rich Fontana holds his first press conference as president of Buffalo's Common Council.

A new majority asserted itself on Buffalo’s Common Council Tuesday afternoon, electing Lovejoy’s Rich Fontana as the Council’s new president, Masten’s Demone Smith as majority leader, and University’s Bonnie Russell as president pro tempore.

Those three were supported by Ellicott’s Darius Pridgen and North’s Joe Golombek. Relegated to the minority are South’s Mickey Kearns, Niagara’s Dave Rivera, Delaware’s Mike LoCurto (who was absent from Tuesday’s reorganization meeting), and Fillmore’s Dave Franczyk, the outgoing president, who used the occasion to throw some jabs at Fontana and Smith, and their new majority coalition, which he believes will be too ready to do the bidding of Mayor Byron Brown.

The council president, Franczyk said, must be “strong and independent” and exhibit “the right character to animate that seat,” to exercise its powers as a check and balance to the executive branch. He quoted James Madison’s assertion in the Federalist Papers that every branch of government must have a will of its own. Franczyk expressed his hope that Fontana would find that will, by reaching “deep into a well of integrity that I only hope is there. I don’t see any evidence of it, but I hope it’s there.”

Franczyk nominated Rivera for council president, arguing that the Niagara District councilman had exhibited exactly the sort of integrity he failed to detect in Fontana when Rivera refused last year to make a deal with the mayor and his allies that would have made him council president. “He refused to take that title out of the gutter,” Franczyk said.

Fontana was elected by a vote of five to three; it would have been five to four if LoCurto had been present, and that tally is likely to be a familiar refrain all year long. Everyone but Kearns and Franczyk applauded Fontana’s election.

After Golombek nominated Smith for majority leader, Rivera responded by nominating Kearns, which precipitated another stemwinder from Franczyk. Franczyk suggested that Smith has an ethical cloud over his head, because he is a defendant in a lawsuit by a Cleveland development firm, NRP Group, accusing city officials of racketeering and other offenses in relation to a scuttled East Side housing development deal. “Until that cloud is cleared away,” Franczyk said, elevating Smith to a leadership position reflects badly on the Common Council. (The accusation drew a vigorous response from Pridgen, who reminded Franczyk that Smith, like any American, was to be presumed innocent until proven guilty.) The vote: five to three. Everyone but Franczyk applauded.

Much of the voting had to do with jobs on the Council’s central staff and in the city clerk’s office. The city clerk, Gerry Chwalinski, kept his job. The Common Council’s chief of staff, Jim Pajak, whose principal political sponsor has been Kearns, was replaced by central staffer Kevin Linder. (Other jobs were lost and gained, too, as they always are when political power shifts; c’est la guerre.) In addition, the incoming majority adopted new rules of order that limit full-time staff in each district office to two people. This deprived Kearns, LoCurto, and Rivera each of a staffer; each had maintained three, arguing that the money for the salary of a third staffer for each district existed in the Council’s budget. The issue of third staffers in district offices has been a particular bugbear for Golombek, who argues that the positions represent pension liabilities paid not out of Council’s budget but from the city’s general fund; indeed, the measure limiting staff was the carrot that drew Golombek to Fontana’s candidacy. The prohibition elicited protests from Kearns that the new majority was effectively diminishing his power as a councilman to determine how he spends the resources allocated to his district.

President pro tempore has been a largely ceremonial position, to which the incoming majority intends to delegate new responsibilities. In response to Pridgen’s nomination of Russell, Kearns nominated LoCurto, and offered this story as evidence of his absent colleague’s judgment and integrity: When the building trade unions—to which LoCurto is indebted politically and of which his own father is a leader—pressured members of the Council to agree to transfer a portion of Fulton Street to the Seneca Gaming Commission for the new downtown casino, LoCurto refused to do so. He told his supporters in the union that the casino was a bad deal for the city and cast his vote, with Kearns, against the land transfer. That was in 2006.

The vote for Russell was five to three. This time, everyone applauded.

Afterward, surrounded by cameras, Fontana took questions from the news media on the chamber floor. One of his priorities, he told a journalist, would be to accept a deal that had been forwarded in August 2010 by the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation and approved by the mayor at the time: In exchange for approval of the transfer of 7.8 acres of city-owned land adjacent to Canalside, ECHDC would provide $10 million for capital projects, with $1 million to be spent in each of the nine districts and the remaining $1 million to be spent citywide at the mayor’s discretion. ECHDC made that offer during a largely manufactured crisis over HSBC’s future as an anchor tenant in downtown’s business district. (Deadlines were set for the land transfer. Ultimata were tossed about. In the end, HSBC decided to continue winding down its Western New York presence for reasons completely unrelated to downtown real estate.) Fontana towed the line for the mayor and ECHDC during those frantic negotiations, while the rest of the former majority coalition hammered out a deal that would allow for the transfer of the Webster Block alone, and only in the event that HSBC actually agreed to build a new headquarters there. The measure prevented the outright sale of valuable city property to ECHDC, which, as a state agency, would then be able to develop it with virtually no city oversight.

To revive that deal, Fontana will need better than a five-to-four majority. A transfer of city land requires at least six votes.

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