Artvoice: Buffalo's #1 Newsweekly
Home Blogs Web Features Calendar Listings Artvoice TV Real Estate Classifieds Contact
Previous story: Free Will Astrology
Next story: Somali Star Rising

Byron Brown's Bupkis

"We told them that was an absolute requirement in these negotiations, that they must waive sovereign immunity with regards to the binding undertakings we are seeking," Mayor Byron Brown told Artvoice two months ago. "We are absolutely going to hold firm, if we can't get a written, legally binding document, we will not move forward."
(photo: Rose Mattrey)

Bupkis. Var. bupkes, bupkus, bubkes. Noun. Yiddish. Said to have originally meant “goat-shit,” but always used in American Yiddish to mean “nothing, zero, worthless, having very little or no value, not worth the effort,” as in “He said he got a lot for his effort but all he got was bupkis.”

Huffing and puffing at City Hall

After a great deal of huffing, puffing, posturing and press-conferencing, Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown has cut a deal with the Seneca Gaming Corporation for the sale of a two-block segment of Fulton Street that gets the City of Buffalo nothing it didn’t have before all the huffing, puffing, posturing and press-conferencing. Nothing. Bupkis. The only difference is Byron Brown got to make a lot of speeches about the casino issue last week and to pretend he was giving the casino issue serious thought. There is one other collateral difference involving one of Brown’s protégés, which I’ll get to later.

No one in the political scene is surprised at this. Brown broke off negotiations with the Senecas in late summer, insisting on a formal promise of jobs for city dwellers, a binding promise not to acquire any more tax-exempt business property and a whole bunch of other stuff, most of it vague.

Seneca gambling boss Barry Snyder said Brown should back off and that Buffalonians should take his word and handshake and that all would be well. City lawyers said that Snyder’s word and handshake were perhaps sincere, but what would happen when there was another Seneca gambling boss with different ideas about how things ought to go and a different hand available for the shaking? That is the reason for contracts. Contracts are enforceable agreements that survive the mood, tenure or life span of original players. Snyder said ugly things and stomped off, giving Brown the opportunity to pretend he was negotiating something, which it now turns out he wasn’t.

In all of this, Brown never addressed the key issue: the casino itself, which would, should it ever be built, deal the city a blow at least as crippling as the departure of the region’s major manufacturing operations in the 1970s. Indeed, this whole show was a distraction from that key issue. What do the frills matter when you’re getting shot in the heart?

The sound of silence

What was the deal Byron Brown was trying to cut while he was busy avoiding the question at the heart of the matter?

Buffalo Corporation Counsel Alisa A. Lukasiewicz was sent a Public Officer’s Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request on August 21 asking for either the documents under consideration in this negotiation or reasons why the city would not provide them. She and the rest of Byron Brown’s administration stonewalled. Even now, long past the FOIL deadline, they have provided neither the documents nor the reasons why they won’t provide them.

When I interviewed Mayor Brown about his rift with the Seneca gambling bosses in early August, he, Lukasiewicz, Richard Tobe (Brown’s Commissioner of the Department of Economic Development, Permit and Inspection Services) and Peter K. Cutler (Brown’s Director of Communications) all said, if you need anything else, let us know, we’ll provide it.

After they had their press conference last Friday to announce this supposed deal with the Seneca gambling operation—on the eve of a major anti-casino conference in Buffalo—I left telephone and email messages for both Cutler and Tobe asking for a copy of the agreement.

Tobe didn’t respond until late Monday night. He said that before things were final they would have to go through the Council and he was sorry that he could not provide the document that was the subject of Brown’s press conference three day’s earlier. “At this stage,” he wrote, “it is a proposed agreement.”

Tobe is a very tactful guy. He knows more about Buffalo’s social and economic needs and situation than anyone else in Byron Brown’s office. He was, I’ve been told, cut out of the negotiations with the Senecas three weeks before Byron Brown’s October 5 press conference. Perhaps his expertise about Buffalo is why he was cut out of the negotiations.

Cutler, the mayor’s in-house press agent, also responded on Monday. “I can’t provide you with the agreement,” Cutler wrote, “since it hasn’t yet been submitted to the City Council for their approval. Once we do that, I’d be happy to get you a copy. In the meantime, here’s a list of ‘highlights’ from the agreement that we provided to the press last week.”

Questioning the “highlights”

Before I get to those “highlights,” here are a few questions:

■ Why should a draft document between a city and a gambling corporation that is to be submitted to the Common Council for public discussion be kept secret?

■ Why, when they had their press conference on the eve of the anti-casino symposium, did they refuse to distribute the draft document to the press?

■ Why won’t they make it available now?

■ Why won’t the mayor’s office make the document available to anti-casino members of the Common Council now?

■ Why did they cut out of the discussions leading up to this document the one man in City Hall, Rich Tobe, who knew more about Buffalo’s economic situation than any other, hence more about the impact on the city of not only this deal to sell a street but also the casino itself?

I can think of only two reasons. One, the document is full of things that will cause the city great harm and they don’t want anybody who knows anything to see it because it will make them look like scoundrels. Two, it consists of things without any meaning whatsoever, which would, therefore, make Mayor Brown look like a publicity-seeking jerk. There is also the possibility (toward which I lean) that it consists of both of those.

Until and unless they release the “agreement,” we can’t know. All we know is what they tell us, which isn’t much.

Byron Brown’s bupkis agreement with the Seneca gambling bosses

Here is what they have chosen to tell us, the list of “Highlights of Agreement Between the City of Buffalo and Seneca Nation of Indians” that Mayor Byron Brown’s PR man, Peter Cutler, sent me, along with my glosses to each point:

■ The Seneca Gaming Corporation will pay the city of Buffalo $631,000 for a two-block section of Fulton Street.

The Seneca Gaming Corporation agreed to this last spring. It wasn’t in dispute. Nothing new here.

■ Seneca Gaming Corporation agrees to make $5 to $7 million worth of infrastructure improvements to city-owned lands around the casino.

These are city-owned lands that are being put in service of the casino, so the Seneca Gaming Corporation is merely improving its own access roads. The city had never agreed to pay those expenses and the SGC long ago had said it would pay them. Nothing new here.

■ Commitment of the Seneca Gaming Corporation to spend $125 million to build grand casino with an urban park.

That’s what they’ve said they intended to do all along, whether or not they had Fulton Street. Nothing new here.

■ Commitment of the Seneca Gaming Corporation to hire approximately 1,000 people at the Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino.

That’s how many they’ve said they intended to hire all along, whether or not they had Fulton Street. Nothing new here.

■ The Seneca Gaming Corporation will give preference to City of Buffalo Residents for 50% of the jobs and will continue with their policy to reach a goal of a diverse workforce.

Since most jobs in the casino are low-wage, low-benefit, how many applicants do you think will be coming in from East Aurora or Clarence or Amherst? Even if “give preference” had specificity and meaning, which it doesn’t, 50 percent of the jobs (and probably more) will go to locals, as they have in Niagara Falls. Everybody knew that all along. And what teeth or meaning does the phrase “will continue with the policy to reach a goal of a diverse workforce” have? This is all meaningless. Nothing new here.

■ Seneca Gaming Corporation will spend in excess of $1.7 million per year to market the facility and the City of Buffalo to visitors from outside the city and State of New York.

This will be satisfied by ads for the casino on Buffalo TV stations, which service much of southern Ontario, just like the ads now airing for the Niagara Falls casino. So it is meaningless. Nothing new here.

■ Seneca Gaming Corporation will pay the City of Buffalo for the use of water and sewer service under the same terms and conditions of other customers.

Was that ever in question? Did the Seneca Gaming Corporation ever ask for free water and sewer service? Did any Buffalo mayor ever promise them that? This was never on the table and it’s not on the table now, so this item is meaningless. Nothing new here.

■ Seneca Gaming Corporation will reimburse the City of Buffalo for out of pocket costs for Buffalo police at special events.

Who would have thought otherwise? Of course they would, just like any other event promoter. This is meaningless. Nothing new here.

That, folks, is it. That is the substance undergirding Mayor Byron Brown’s big press conference last Thursday. Eight items settled after months of hard negotiations with the Seneca Gaming Corporation lawyers, every item without meaning or substance.

And what of Mayor Brown’s non-negotiable demand that the Seneca Gaming Corporation sign a contract promising it would never seek any more Buffalo land for tax-exempt commercial exploitation and that the Seneca Nation relinquish sovereignty on those issues to make the contract meaningful? Gone. Forgotten. Vaporized.

It’s bupkis, all bupkis. Perhaps Mayor Brown will find something of substance to fold into the document before it goes to the Council and become public but, as of now, while the document itself is still secret and all we get to see are the key points, there is nothing of substance there.

So why did Byron Brown do it?

Why did Byron Brown spend four months huffing and puffing only to get back where he started?

Perhaps he and his handlers think the public is stupid enough to think his made-for-TV-and-the-Buffalo-News face-off with Seneca gambling boss Barry Snyder proves he’s a tough guy who will stand up for Buffalo’s interests, and that will help him in the next phase of his political career. Byron Brown is, according to everyone who knows him, ambitious. He eyes, they say, Louise Slaughter’s office in Washington.

He would, after all, have a friend in the Seneca gambling operation—until Barry Snyder is replaced by someone with no political debts to Byron Brown, unless that new Seneca gambling boss decides that Byron Brown could be as useful to their gambling operation in Washington as he had been in Buffalo.

Those Seneca gambling contributions would pay a big part of that campaign should Slaughter retire or stumble. By the time Buffalo realizes how much it has been crippled by the Seneca Creek casino Brown helped make possible, he’d be elsewhere. That’s an old story in politics.

Promoting Antoine Thompson

Another reason for Byron Brown’s curious behavior, which can coexist with the foregoing, is more local: His fictional war these past several months with the Seneca gambling bosses helped his protégé Antoine Thompson avoid having to take a stand on the casino, an issue Thompson was desperate to avoid.

Thompson, who was running in the Democratic primary for the State Senate seat currently held by Marc Coppola, told me two months ago that Buffalo’s city government would do nothing about the Fulton Street sale until after the primaries. I asked him who in city government he was talking about. “City government,” he said.

What he seemed to be saying was that either the mayor’s office or the people now running the Common Council, or both, weren’t going to put him at risk by forcing him to stand up and take sides on the Fulton Street issue before the primary election.

Buffalo’s East Side, which has been on the receiving end of a lot of deceptive hype about jobs in the casino, favors the proposed casino far more than the rest of the State Senate district currently held by Marc Coppola, who moved from the Buffalo Common Council into his Senate job when Brown was elected Buffalo’s mayor. Brown had wanted the Erie County Democratic organization to give his Senate seat to his former aide, Antoine Thompson, who by then had moved into the Common Council seat Brown had previously vacated when Brown defeated Coppola’s cousin Al for a seat in the State Senate. But the county machine gave the job to Marc Coppola instead.

So this recent primary was, at least in part, a battle between the old-line Democratic organization and Byron Brown and his organization, though neither was on the ballot. The war was fought through Antoine Thompson, and one of the casualties was any serious consideration of the casino on Buffalo’s economy .

Byron Brown’s man won, in part because City Hall made sure Antoine Thompson wouldn’t have to take sides on the casino issue, and Byron Brown is obviously feeling good about having whipped the machine. Good enough to hand Seneca gambling boss Barry Snyder exactly what he wanted, and confident enough to stonewall all the city’s news media when they asked for details about the no-content casino deal about Fulton Street he and Snyder were pretending they had negotiated.

Byron Brown’s October 6 press conference

Sharon Linstedt and Brian Meyer’s article in the October 6 Buffalo News, “Fulton Street sale paves way for casino,” began, “Calling it ‘a good deal for Buffalo,’ Mayor Byron W. Brown announced Thursday an agreement with the Seneca Nation of Indians on plans for a $125 million casino in the city’s Cobblestone District. In a joint announcement with Seneca President Barry E. Snyder Sr., Brown said private negotiations over the past two months have produced a document governing the project with which he is ‘very comfortable.’”

How nice. But perhaps Brown shouldn’t be quite so comfortable. For starters, there isn’t —as Rich Tobe pointed out—any agreement that has any meaning anywhere outside a press conference. All there is is a draft of one that has yet to be subjected to public hearings. That will be followed by an environmental impact study and a vote of the Common Council. Even though Buffalo’s Common Council seems mostly bought-and-sold when it comes to the casino, there are still some members able and willing to look at this dog of a project directly.

That October 6 press conference was covered by the Buffalo News and all the local TV stations and the few local radio stations that still do news. It was a news conference with no content whatsoever. The mayor of Buffalo got up in front of cameras and microphones to talk about a draft of an agreement neither he nor anyone on his staff would show to anyone in the press or anyone on the Common Council. It was a press conference to announce a talking paper, a piece of fluff, which had in it nothing of any meaning, nothing new. It was a press conference about nothing.

At that press conference about nothing, Byron Brown did a terrific job of manipulating the Buffalo press into thinking something had happened, when the only thing that had happened was the Buffalo press was manipulated by Byron Brown. All the local stations covered the event that night and the Buffalo News covered it the next day.

So here’s the final question. Who did Buffalo a greater disservice that day: Byron Brown, who got up to talk about bupkis as if it were something of value, or the Buffalo News and all those TV and radio stations, that passed Byron Brown’s bupkis along to you, as if it were something that mattered?