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The Would-Be Comptrollers' Coming-Out Party

This week, David Shenk, clerk for the Town of Boston, underwent his first public vetting as a candidate for Erie County comptroller, the county’s chief fiscal watchdog.

Shenk was one of four finalists interviewed by the Erie County Legislature on Tuesday afternoon to fill the vacancy left by Mark Poloncarz, the new Erie County executive. Moreover, Shenk is the candidate recommended by Erie County Democratic Party Chairman Len Lenihan. The other three finalists are George Hasiotis, a local businessman who spent four years as a commissioner of the Erie County Water Authority; Richard Pawarski, who spent 10 years as deputy comptroller for the City of Buffalo; and Dan Ward, a former supervisor for the Town of Amherst. All are Democrats, and all have long histories of involvement in local politics.

The Legislature is charged with filling the vacancy. Whoever fills the vacancy will have to run for the seat this fall, then again in the fall of 2013, when Poloncarz’s term would have expired. Last month, Lenihan convened an advisory board to consider applicants for the party’s endorsement; that panel winnowed 10 candidates to five, including Shenk. A fifth finalist, M&T Bank’s David Rutecki, withdrew, just as word began to spread that Shenk would win Lenihan’s recommendation.

First, the qualifications: Shenk is a US Army reservist who has spent 20 years in the elected position of town clerk for Boston; he won the Bronze Star during one of his recent deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, where he commanded a forward surgical unit. In addition to running Antoinette’s Sweets, Hasiotis has served on the boards of numerous cultural and public benefit groups, was treasurer and CFO of the water authority while he was a commissioner there, and is a cofounder of the Economic Club of Canada. He has an MA in economics. Pawarski is a CPA with a PhD in management business administration (his thesis subject was the Sarbanes-Oxley Act) who spent 10 years as a deputy to then-city comptroller Joel Giambra. Ward, the former Amherst town supervisor, is the only one of the candidates who has been chief financial officer for a municipal government.

Next, the interviews: The candidates were interviewed in alphabetical order. Hasiotis presented his credentials, then, in response to questions from Tonawanda’s Kevin Hardwick and, later, Hamburg’s Lynne Dixon, argued that his experience at the water authority had made him familiar with municipal finance in general and bond markets in particular. He said that he believed there were opportunities to introduce new thinking to the workings of the comptroller’s office, and that grants from private foundations interested in good government initiatives might underwrite the implementation of some of those new ideas. He described the county’s fiscal health as currently stable but precarious, subject as it is to the vagaries of international trade and currency exchange rates, and the whims of Albany and Washington, DC.

Pawarski largely allowed his qualifications to speak for themselves, then delved quickly into his political credentials: He was certain that he could win the endorsement of the Independence Party. (It has been widely speculated that Shenk would have the Conservative Party endorsement.) He would commit up to $150,000 of his own money to the race this fall and enjoyed a wide network of professionals he would solicit for further backing. And, he added, both on his resume and in response to a question about his management style, “I have a charismatic personality.”

After a break, it was Shenk’s turn. He halted here and there reading his opening statement, in which he argued that his seven runs for town clerk, three times endorsed by all parties, should be taken as proof that he is good at both his job and at politics. He underlined his military service with bolder and bolder marks, referring again and again to the pressures of combat and the things he’d learned during his deployments.

He was then subjected to a string of friendly but pointed questions. Williamsville’s Ed Rath III asked if he had municipal finance experience? (He’d managed several checking accounts for the Town of Boston, which has an annual budget of $6 million.) Had he ever managed a payroll? (No.) Hardwick asked Shenk whether he’d considered applying for the county clerk vacancy left by Kathy Hochul last spring, considering his experience seemed better tailored to that job? (He was in Afghanistan at the time.)

Hardwick then asked Shenk whether and when he thought it appropriate to employ mirror bonds, a means by which the county might eventually absorb any long-term debt issued by the Erie County Fiscal Stability Authority, hypothetically enabling the authority to be dissolved before it retired its debt.

Shenk responded that he had some experience with bond anticipation notes.

Okay, Hardwick said, but where do you stand on mirror bonds?

Shenk then allowed that he was not prepared to comment on the issue, and added that, while the other candidates might have more relevant experience than he, anyone new to the job would experience a learning curve, and that he intended to put in place a strong, experienced team to help him manage a department full of professionals who know all about mirror bonds and other esoterica.

Finally, there came the affable Ward, who seemed to know everyone in the room and barely wasted his breath presenting his credentials. Ward, a party stalwart and a friend of Lenihan, said, in essence, that Shenk was the party’s nominee and there was no sense pretending otherwise. Though he considered himself qualified for the job, he understood it to be Shenk’s to lose.

Which brings us, finally, to the politics: Though several legislators faulted Pawarski for dwelling on political considerations in his opening statement, the process of filling vacancies is lousy with politics, and this instance is as lousy as any before it. No one seems to know how Shenk seemed to become Lenihan’s favored candidate. Maybe he’d easier to tame than someone with his own political and financial support system. Maybe his war hero credentials appeal. Maybe someone, somewhere, is collecting on or creating a political debt.

Hasiotis has declared that he will run this fall for the job, whether the legislature chooses him or not, a promise he reiterated at Tuesday’s interview. Asked if he would run, Ward didn’t actually answer yes or no, though he did respond obliquely to Hasiotis’s declaration: Ward said that, understanding that filling the vacancy requires both a political and a legal process—the first being the vetting of the Democratic party, the second being the vote of the Legislature—a candidate would be disingenuous to engage that process and then to disavow it when the process rewarded somebody else.

Hasiotis explained himself during his interview: If he withdrew his interest in the job because he’d failed to win the approval of Lenihan and the Democratic Party, he argued, that would hardly make him look like the sort of political independent that folks say they’d like as a comptroller. It would suggest instead that he was a loyal servant of the party.

Outside the Legislature’s chambers, Pawarski said that he believes the selection process was a sham—that Shenk had been handpicked by Lenihan and perhaps even by Poloncarz back in December, before Lenihan had assembled his advisory committee. Any of the other three candidates, Pawarski said, had more applicable experience an expertise than Shenk. Inside the chamber, Pawarski admonished the legislators: Voters deserve “a first-class comptroller,” he said, and they “want you to put politics aside.” A judgment will be rendered on both the decision and how it was made, Pawarski said.

Then he added that if the Legislature chose Shenk, he would support Hasiotis’s campaign.

At press time, the Legislature had not yet put filling the vacancy on its agenda, which suggests that the votes have not yet been corralled—and means that some Democrats are balking at their party’s recommendation.

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