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The Best Mayor South Buffalo Ever Had

Does the Paladino proposal for the Webster Block signify a new detente between the developer and the Brown administration?

Byron Brown’s hiring practices underscore alliances with white conservatives, inaction on issues of particular importance to Buffalo’s black community

Byron Brown’s track record of hiring African-American administrators—he doesn’t, for the most part—is surprising until you put it in a larger context.

An analysis by Sue Schulman of the Buffalo News two weeks ago showed blacks hold only one of 12 commissioner posts, all of whom operate under the heavy hand of Deputy Mayor Steve Casey, who is white.

Yes, the Brown administration is hiring more women and people of color for lower-level positions, and that should not be overlooked. In fact, it should be praised. But when it comes to decision-makers, the mayor’s cabinet doesn’t look any more diverse than it was during the days of Jimmy Griffin.

That prompted News columnist Rod Watson to declare the complexion of Brown’s cabinet “appalling for any mayor, but is especially grating considering the hopes and expectations of change that came with Brown’s election.”

The lack of diversity isn’t altogether surprising when you look at the company Brown has kept as mayor. For starters, there’s the dominant role Casey plays in the administration, playing Dick Cheney to Brown’s Dubya.

The administration has given the Buffalo Niagara Partnership a central role in recruiting and screening job candidates for several top positions. On the one hand, it’s a white-male-dominated chamber. Then again, the Partnership likely does a more professional job in seeking candidates for those positions than the city would, left to its own devices. But still.

Politically, Brown and Casey aligned with Chris Collins, whose tenure as county executive was hostile to urban concerns. Collins closed county-run health clinics in the city and childcare subsidies to the poor. He fought the federal government tooth and nail when it sought to improve conditions at the county Holding Center.

All without a peep from Brown.

What’s more, Brown and Collins joined forces to end Democratic control of the Erie County Legislature in 2010 in a deal that saw Barbara Miller-Williams ascend to the chairmanship. The move empowered two groups—suburban Republicans aligned with Collins and city Democrats loyal to Brown.

Perhaps most telling is Brown’s inaction on a number of key city issues that, while important to all citizens, hold particular import to African Americans.

Start with his hands-off approach to city schools, whose enrollment is 73 percent minority. The district has been ground zero on one important issue after another—poor student performance, low attendance, high dropout rates, controversy swirling around former Superintendent James Williams. Brown, for the most part, has been been nowhere to be found.

Buffalo has some of the worst poverty in the nation and Brown in his first term pledged to develop a game plan to combat it. After a considerable delay, his administration unveiled a plan regarded by many as underwhelming, and which appears to occupy little of Brown’s time or attention since its release two years ago.

Meanwhile, his administration has failed to clean up its mismanagement of the Community Development Block Grant program—the federally funded anti-poverty program—prompting the US Department of Housing and Urban Development to designate Buffalo in April as one of only a handful of “high risk” recipients across the nation. Press coverage of Brown’s mismanagement of the Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corporation prompted him to disband the agency, leaving Buffalo without an economic development corporation. Not a good thing, especially in such a poor city.

Brown pays attention to retail politics in the black community, showing up for block club parties and awarding grants to barber shops and the like in his old Council district. But when it comes to the really important stuff—public policy that could improve the life of his political base—the mayor has little to show for himself.

The complexion of his cabinet isn’t the byproduct of indifference but rather political calculation. Brown and Casey know they need to keep at least a portion of the city’s white political players on their side. South Buffalo is the most politically muscular part of town. Hence, they have hired the Comerford brothers, who head up the Sewer Authority and Inspections Department. Martin Kennedy heads up Assessment and Taxation, John Hannon led the Division of Real Estate until his retirement. Of late, Brown is said to have helped broker the appointment of Chris Scanlon to the Common Council seat vacated by Mickey Kearns, thus bringing the politically active Scanlon family into the fold.

African-American appointments to the top spots are fewer and farther between, and many of the appointees have found the Brown administration an inhospitable place to work. (Not that whites have found the going any easier.) Consider that Deputy Mayor Angela Joyner lasted just four months after learning the hard way there was room for only one deputy mayor in City Hall. Police Commissioner H. McCarthy Gipson was fired at the end of Brown’s first term.

In short, part of the strategy is to ply South Buffalo with jobs to keep it politically at bay. If means fewer jobs for minority administrators at the top, so be it. Thus far, no one in the black community, aside from Watson, has been willing to call Brown out on it.

Elsewhere around City Hall, the Brown administration is getting ready to select a developer for the Webster Block. Only two developers put forth suitable proposals—which begs the question, how come only two for such a supposedly desirous parcel?—and the competition involves quite the Battle of the Bands. On one stage we have Terry Pegula and his Buffalo Sabres, who wants to build twin hockey rinks, shops, a hotel, and a parking ramp. On the other stage we have Carl Paladino and a couple of his longtime real estate partners, who propose an even bigger parking ramp—big surprise there—shops, a hotel, apartments, and office space.

There’s a certain sex appeal that comes with the Sabres proposal, but, really, are hockey rinks the best and highest use of such a prime piece of real estate? If folks didn’t like Bass Pro because it was a big box, what is a pair of hockey rinks except a chilled big box?

Pegula and company could be onto something by bringing in hockey tournaments, which, if done right, could do its bit to bolster the local economy. Consider what amateur sports has done for Indianapolis. But two rinks aren’t enough to bring in more than small-time tournaments. I would have liked to have seen a better thought-out tournament business plan presented or an alliance with a Division I hockey program. Canisius College, for one, has been in the hunt for a facility for more than 15 years.

Paladino’s proposal has better architecture and a housing component going for it, although the parking component looms awfully large. What’s most noteworthy is what the project says about his evolving relationship with Byron Brown.

Six years ago, Paladino helped bankroll Kevin Helfer’s mayoral campaign against Brown. He did likewise two years ago for Mickey Kearns. Along the way, we were treated to all the normal Paladino rhetoric, in which he, among other things, likened City Hall to a crime ring.

Paladino has dummied up about Brown and Casey in the past year or so. Maybe he finally found himself a black politician he could warm up to, or perhaps he realized that a continuing war with the mayor was bad for business. Regardless, the detente has given Paladino a shot at a prized project, and his selection could signal a political realignment that was unimaginable a year ago.

Jim Heaney is editor of Investigative Post, a nonprofit reporting center focused on issues of importance to Buffalo and Western New York. Visit daily for investigations, analyses, blog posts, and the latest from Tom Toles.

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