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Common Council Report

Demone Smith to Dave Franczyk: Sue me.

On Tuesday, Mayor Byron Brown released his proposed budget for the upcoming financial year. And the Common Council once again punted on filling the vacant South District seat, leaving a substantial bloc of the city’s residents unrepresented as the legislative branch begins to parse that budget. The vacancy went unaddressed in the Council’s Tuesday afternoon meeting, but earlier that day Common Council President Rich Fontana said that he was reopening the process and soliciting a second round of resumes for the position. This, although there is already in the offing a candidate with a solid resume and the endorsement of the South Buffalo Democratic committee: Matt Fisher, who worked as an aide to the departed councilman, Mickey Kearns.

This has sunk far below quotidian pettiness and become hugely embarrassing. It continues to astonish that a legislative body comprised of basically decent and reasonably intelligent people can bring so much shame onto itself.

Fisher has four votes: Fillmore’s Dave Franczyk, Delaware’s Mike LoCurto, Niagara’s Dave Rivera, and North’s Joe Golombek. He is opposed by the remaining members of the majority coalition with which Golombek generally caucuses: Lovejoy’s Fontana, Masten’s Demone Smith, University’s Bonnie Russell, and Ellicott’s Darius Pridgen—who seems content to do unto another as was done unto him two years ago, when a the previous majority coalition ignored his endorsement by the Ellicott District Democratic committee to fill the seat vacated by Brian Davis, choosing instead Dr. Curtis Haynes, an economics professor at Buffalo State College, whom Pridge later beat in a primary.

“Opposed” is the correct characterization: None of the four supports another candidate. Early on, some may have been determined to vote in Brian Bollman, an aide to Fontana, but his candidacy was derailed by his apparent failure to meet the residency requirement; he has not lived in the South District for one year. (Fontana said the state Board of Elections told him Bollman could have been seated legally on the grounds that he owned property in the South District, but acknowledged that the question cast a pall on Bollman’s candidacy, making it untenable.) It was later suggested, and reported in this outlet and others, that the four were lined up behind Linda Bain, a block club activist. That, it turns out, was a fraud—she never had four votes.

In fact, the majority is simply opposed to Fisher. Why? I left messages for all four to discuss the vacancy and only Fontana responded before press time. Fontana said he would not explain his specific objections, if any, to Fisher’s candidacy, because the hiring process was ongoing. (New resumes will be accepted until Monday, May 7; Fontana said so far he’d received one new name.) He said that Fisher is a strong candidate who nonetheless cannot get five votes, and that he hoped reopening the field would bring forth a compromise candidate who would break the stalemate.

Here are my conclusions: The majority bloc’s opposition has nothing to do with Fisher himself, who has a solid history of working in the community, especially on housing issues, and who made one of the best presentations to the Council during the public interview process. (Another standout was A. J. Verel, whose candidacy, Fontana said, was “muddied” by allegations he’d spent time in jail in the same way Bollman’s candidacy was muddied by the residency issue.) And it has less to do with antipathy toward Kearns than might be expected; no one sparred more regularly with Kearns than Golombek, and Golombek, for now at least, is behind Kearns’s favored candidate.

Largely, it has to do with raw relations between the colleagues Kearns left behind when he moved on to the New York State Assembly.

Witness this paroxysm of petulance at the onset of Tuesday’s meeting: The office of Mayor Byron Brown filed late on Tuesday an item regarding the mayor’s new appointment to the board of the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority, Donna Brown, the former deputy mayor charged with developing an anti-poverty program. Such late files from the mayor—and indeed almost all late files made by councilmembers—are generally accepted pro forma for discussion and action. But Franczyk objected to accepting the late file, which, according to the charter, prevents the Council from taking up the issue. Fontana asked the city’s attorney if Franczyk was allowed to object to late files coming from the mayor, who is permitted under the charter to address the Council at his or her will. The city’s attorney pointed out that provision. In response, Franczyk read that part of the charter dealing with late files, and argued that the provision that allows the mayor to address the Council at will meant that Byron Brown could come into chambers and talk; it did not exempt him from the provisions regarding late-filed items. “That’s an interesting concept, Mr. President,” Fontana replied, apparently forgetting in the crucible of playground politics that he was now president, having jumped from the old majority to the new, mayor-friendly majority in order to replaces Franczyk at the big desk. “It’s not a concept, it’s the law,” Franczyk interjected, as Fontana pointed out that under Franczyk’s presidency late files from the mayor had been accepted as a matter of course. Smith, the majority leader, put an end to the matter by suggesting that the Council accept the late file and let Franczyk sue in court if he thought the law was on his side.

The whole exchange was trivial: The letter of the law seems to be on Franczyk’s side; still, Donna Brown’s appointment to the BMHA board will be approved—whether in two weeks or four weeks makes little difference. The point of relating the exchange is to illustrate the tenor of relations between councilmembers. They may behave collegially 90 percent of the time, but there is a reservoir of resentment that wells up from time to time, as it did between Franczyk and Fontana on Tuesday, and as it has in the matter of the South District vacancy: No one is against Matt Fisher, but some councilmembers are against anyone who’s for Matt Fisher. Meantime, the mayor’s office seems to be keeping its hands off the issue, no doubt content to allow the Council to make itself look foolish.

Meantime, the budget process begins, and the South District seethes. Here’s what Patrick Burke, another candidate for the vacancy, wrote to us about his experience:

The interview process itself was a joke. Some of the council members didn’t even bother asking questions during the interviews because they had already committed to a candidate beforehand. In actuality, all of the councilmembers committed to candidates before the interviews ever happened.

Meanwhile, for the second time in six months, South Buffalo is lacking a representative. First, the 145th Assembly seat was vacant for almost three months and really for much longer then that if you consider that Mr. Schroeder already had one foot in the comptroller’s office. Now, we have a South District seat that remains vacant going into the budget. The obstinate behavior of some of the council members only proves that their own interests are superseding the well being of the South District. Now they’re calling for a second round of applicants to re-create the hollow interview process all over again. They can pretend that they’re looking to make a compromise but they aren’t. Again, South Buffalo suffers.

A group of South Buffalo block clubs will protest the failure to fill the vacancy on Thursday morning (May 3) in front of City Hall.

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