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Seven Days: The Straight Dope From the Week That Was

BERC workers, Buffalo's own Bill Sadler has come to exact his vengeance.

BERC EMPLOYEES GIVEN NOTICE >> On Wednesday, October 6, an attorney from Harris Beach informed employees of the Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corporation that their last day of employment would be October 22. In other words, the staff was given a generous two weeks plus two days notice, delivered not by BERC’s real estate mogul Dennis Penman, or by Mayor Byron Brown, but by a lawyer from the private law firm BERC has been paying to help wind down operations. (Think Up in the Air.) The reason for BERC’s dissolution, as far as the remaining employees have been told—those who have not been transferred to the Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency, for example—is the embarrassment caused to the mayor by the One Sunset debacle, in which BERC provided $110,000 in loans and grants to a restaurant run by former basketball standout Leonard Stokes, who had close ties to Brown. The restaurant defaulted in spectacular fashion, leaving in its wake a flood of lawsuits and unpaid obligations. It turned out that Stokes’s initial application for a loan was denied by the large loan committee constituted of finance professionals, but then was later split into smaller loans that could be approved by staff, after the mayor encouraged his people to “help out” Stokes.

Did they ever: Michelle Barron, BERC’s vice president, practically managed the joint. Former Councilman Brian C. Davis held court there, and even wrote a check to the landlord, Kevin Brinkworth, Sr., when Stokes fell so far behind on rent that Brinkworth threatened to begin eviction proceedings. Unfortunately, that check bounced, the restaurant shut its doors, and the whole sorry episode went public—in January of the mayor’s re-election year.

Audits, firings, and recriminations followed. In his January 2010 state-of-the-city address, Brown said he would fold up BERC and consolidate its operations somewhere else, possibly under BURA. Consultants and attorneys were hired to accomplish the dissolution. Former BERC employees and Buffalo’s Common Council are left wondering if and how the city will lend support to businesses in the future, and how BERC’s current portfolio of loans and properties will be managed.

Strangely, according to meeting minutes, BERC’s board was still approving new loans and extending leases with tenants in some of its properties as late as April.

CHILD’S PLAY AT THE COMMON COUNCIL >> Tuesday’s Common Council session began as it does every other week, inevitably and inexplicably, with the Pledge of Allegiance and a Christian prayer. (Does no one in this town believe in separating church and state?) The celebrant this week was South District Councilman Mickey Kearns, who asked God to bestow the guidance “to make good decisions.”

He might better have asked the Lord to remind lawmakers of the Golden Rule, because it wasn’t long before the member of the Common Council were doing unto each other like nobody’s business.

The nastiness began with North District Councilman Joe Golombek, who had filed a copy of last week’s Buffalo News article by Jim Heaney that documented the failure of Mayor Byron Brown’s administration to conduct national searches for department heads, despite promises to do exactly that. (The principle cases Heaney used were the appointments of Daniel Derenda as police commissioner, Garnell Whitfield as fire commissioner, and Brendan Mehaffey as the city’s chief economic development officer.) Golombek began by rather pedantically asking Tim Ball, the assistant corporation counsel who sits in on Common Council meetings to answer questions on points of law, to explain how it is that department heads are hired.

Ball provided him the answer he wanted—the answer everyone in the room already knew: The mayor nominates a candidate, and the Common Council approves the candidate.

Golombek wanted to suggest that the Common Council was equally to blame for any of the mayor’s bad hires, because the Common Council approved those hires. Niagara District’s David Rivera, who voted against the Derenda hire and on whose behalf the appointment of David Rodriguez as the city’s top lawyer was torpedoed, was having none of that. Rivera said that he approved of a resolution Golombek had filed for that week suggesting that the minimum requirements for a police commissioner should include a bachelor’s degree (Derenda only graduated high school), but pointed out that the time for the Common Council to stand up for such a requirement had been the Derenda confirmation hearings. The vote to confirm Derenda had been five to four, with Kearns, Rivera, Ellicott’s Curtis Haynes, and Delaware’s Mike LoCurto in the negative.

At that point the mood had become testy. Soon it became downright uncivil. When the re-appointment of Russell Weaver as a legislative aide to Kearns arose, Golombek asked, “Is this the second or the third employee in that district office?”

None of your business,” Kearns snapped. Kearns was reminded by Council President Dave Franczyk that it was public information, and Kearns backed away from the remark. Golombek has been an attack dog on legislative hires; he says that since the Common Council downsized from 13 to nine members, there has been what he calls an “unwritten agreement” that no district office would employ more than two full-time staff members, in addition to the councilmember. Lately, Kearns has carried three—two at City Hall and one as a full-time worker at the Cazenovia Community Resource Center in South Buffalo. Golombek consistently takes exception to what he considers wasteful hires, arguing that the Common Council should continue to take the lead in downsizing and belt-tightening.

In the subsequent discussion, it was revealed that the last revision of the city charter had mandated a cap of 37 employees for the Common Council. Darryl McPherson of the City Comptroller’s office confirmed that each year the Common Council’s budget allowed for the full complement of 37. Weaver, it turns out, would be employee #36. And in any case, as Majority Leader Rich Fontana of Lovejoy pointed out, the cap of 37 included a sunset clause: It expired in 2006. The Common Council is permitted to hire as many staffers as it wanted.

The issue closed, with Weaver confirmed by an eight-to-one vote. Soon, however, came the confirmation of Common Council employee #37, Brian Bray, and here things turned truly ugly. Bray, who was appointed to the Common Council’s central staff, is an out-and-out patronage hire, a political operative who’s made the rounds: He last worked for the Erie County Water Authority, but was fired when Jack O’Donnell, a political operative for an opposing faction within the Democratic Party, was named an authority commissioner. Previously, he’d been on the staff of the Erie County Legislature; he lost that job in the re-organization that followed Lynn Marinelli’s Catiline re-election as majority leader in 2007.

A nasty (and unsubstantiated) rumor trailed Bray out of Erie County Legislature office: It was said that out of spite he’d destroyed materials that incoming staff would need. Charges could have been pressed, the story goes, but cool heads decided to let the matter slip.

That’s the sort of rumor that attends all sorts of people who ride the patronage merry-go-round. It may or may not be true, and frankly, I’m not sure whose word I would take as gospel on the matter. The point is that, presumably because there is no proof, the accusation was never made publicly—until Tuesday, when Golombek cited the rumor (in a public, televised meeting) as one reason he was unwilling to approve Bray’s appointment.

Bray’s appointment was approved in a nine-to-three vote. Masten’s Demone Smith and University’s Bonnie Russell joined Golombek in the negative.

The Council adopted Golombek’s resolution supporting a charter amendment that would require the police commissioner to have at least a bachelor’s degree. The Council also adopted Golombek’s resolution to ascertain all the costs associated with each new hire the body makes, but reserved judgment on his resolution to impose a limit on the number of employees under the Common Council’s budget line.

SCHOOL 36 SALE SENT TO COMMITTEE >> A year ago, it seemed like a done deal: The vacant School 36 on Days Park would be sold by the city to the Elmwood Village Charter School, which was eager to expand its operations beyond the space it rented from developer Sam Savarino on Elmwood Avenue, between Allen and North Streets.

But then Savarino, who’d been interested in the Days Park building since he first learned that the district would be closing it, got involved in the proceedings. Savarino tried to enter the bidding process for the property, offering as his prospective tenant an as-yet-unchartered charter school called the West Buffalo Charter School. When the Brown administration and the Common Council moved to transfer the property to Elmwood Village Charter School despite Savarino’s substantially higher bid, the developer sued—twice.

The first lawsuit, against Elmwood Village Charter School for violation of its lease agreement with him, was summarily dismissed.

The second suit was an Article 78 action accusing the city of violating its own set of procedures for liquidating city-owned property. That suit succeeded.

The question of who is the best possible purchaser for that property is complicated: On the one hand, Elmwood Village Charter School would be an owner-occupant, the neighborhood seems to prefer Elmwood Village Charter School, and Elmwood Village Charter School is a proven successful operation, whereas Savarino’s client does not yet have approval to operate; on the other hand, West Buffalo Charter School claims its charter cannot be approved unless it can call that property its home by December 1, Savarino is offering more money to put the building to essentially the same use, and a judge has ruled that the city proved to be Elmwood Village Charter School’s worst best friend by essentially fixing the process to ensure the outcome neighborhood residents asked for. If the city does anything to present an advantage to Elmwood Village Charter School now, Savarino will likely sue—and win—again.

All this will be aired out in next Tuesday’s 1pm meeting of the Common Council’s Economic Development Committee, which will consider a resolution by Ellicott District Councilman Curtis Haynes recommending that the city put the property up for public auction, with the opening bid set at $800,000, which is what Savarino offered for the school.

Meantime, here’s an interesting fact, courtesy of Haynes. He asked the city’s legal department how often Article 78s actions against the city are successful. That is, how often are the complainants justified in arguing that the city violated its own rules and procedures.

The answer given to Haynes: Article 78 actions succeed 75 percent of the time.

The altar of St. Matthew's on East Ferry as it was three years ago. (photo by David Torke /

PRISON TIME SOUGHT FOR WOULD-BE CHURCH FLIPPERS >> The City of Buffalo’s law department will reportedly seek prison time for two partners who bought and then immediately sought to flip an East Side church.

Scott Weinstein and David Serota of Williamsville, the partners in Re/Deal Partners LLC, picked up the former St. Matthew’s Catholic church at the city’s annual tax auction in October 2006, for $3,500. They’ve been in and out of housing court ever since, and their next date with City Housing Court Judge Henry Nowak is next Tuesday.

St. Matthew’s, opened in 1928 and located at the corner of East Ferry and Wyoming streets, was abandoned by the Catholic diocese in the 1990s. By the time Serota and Weinsten picked it up, it was rife with broken windows, haphazardly boarded up with dismantled pews. It was, like so many other abandoned churches, houses, and factory buildings, open to the weather and vandals.

In late April 2007, Weinstein sent an email to East Side preservation activist David Torke, who had begun documenting the church’s plight on his blog, Weinstein wrote that he was “unhappy” to see photographs of the church’s interior on Torke’s blog:

Hopefully, you closed the doors behind you and there is no damage or vandalism. Otherwise, we will have to press charges for trespassing. Thank you for the evidence. You could have gotten the ownership records from city hall and contacted us directly. Hopefully, this is not a regular practice of yours. We will be putting a larger lock on the door next time.

Weinstein went on to explain that he and his partner—who have no apparent roots in the neighborhood—had purchased the church with the intention of transforming it into a community center. (There is already a community center, CRUCIAL, about five blocks away.) Torke replied by indicating that the city’s property records did not yet reflect the new ownership, wishing Weinstein and Serota luck, suggesting they secure the building, and assuring them that he’d report on their progress.

Weinstein replied that deed had only just been filed with the city. This was an interesting admission, because Torke learned a week later that Weinstein and Serota had listed the church for sale on eBay in January. Before they even had filed the deed or taken title. In blatant violation of the anti-flipping agreement the partners had signed with the city upon purchasing the property at auction just three months earlier.

Fast-forward three years and four months. Another October tax auction looms. St. Matthew’s is back on the list of properties whose owners have failed to pay city property taxes. Weinstein and Serota may not have been completely above-board—they were trying to flip the property while telling a community activist they planned to build a community center—but they’re really just one chapter in an depressingly exemplary narrative: A church opens in a still thriving neighborhood; the neighborhood’s fortunes diminish over decades, as does the congregation; the Catholic diocese abandons its East Side properties, leaving them vacant and decaying, the former anchors to the neighborhoods now helping to drag those neighborhoods to the bottom; and finally, a couple of young guys looking for an opportunity get in over their heads.

The theme that runs throughout: An impressive building continues to fall to pieces before the eyes of its neighbors.

MILKING A STORY >> Last week we reported how some folks from the group Milk Not Jails ( ran into some trouble in the big city. It seems the protesters—who draw attention to the plight of rural New York’s dairy farmers by serving ice cream to people, topped with a generous dollop of social commentary—had spent Saturday, September 25, “introducing attendees to the Milk Not Jails campaign, a new statewide initiative looking to create a new urban-rural relationship, one that is not dominated by the prison system.”

They held a well-attended “Ice Cream Social” on that day, at the Frank E. Merriweather Library, co-hosted by local outfits Prisoners Are People Too and the Massachusetts Avenue Project, to highlight how many rural New York towns rely on state prisons for jobs during the ongoing budget crisis.

Later that night, on Allen Street, a cop carrying a joint approached them and asked Tychist Baker, an African-American member of Milk Not Jails, if he had dropped something. Everybody had to produce identification as the officer called for backup. Baker was frisked, and found to be clean. Meanwhile, Lauren Melodia, another organizer, asked too many questions of the boys in blue. “If your friend hadn’t acted like a lawyer we would have let you go,” a cop told Baker.

The two spent the night in the holding center, and received no ice cream while there.

On Monday morning, October 4, a group of about 20 supporters came to city court, where Buffalo attorneys Daire Brian Irwin and Michael Kuzma took up their case before Hon. Joseph A. Fiorella. They were successful in obtaining an Adjournment in Contemplation of Dismissal, which means the pair need to stay out of trouble until April 2011, and it’ll be like nothing happened.

Kuzma, who’d attended the event at the Merriweather library, said he was shocked when he found out the two had been arrested later that night. He took on the case with Irwin, free of charge. (Unless you count a warm hug as payment.)

It clearly proves that Buffalo, including its attorneys, is indeed the City of Good Neighbors,” Kuzma said.

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