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Tim Wanamaker's gone, but then he was hardly ever here anyway


Back in April, Buffalo’s Common Council asked all city departments to submit travel expenses incurred since July 2006. The general rationale, according to the resolution, was to encourage departments to economize in the age of escalating travel costs.

The specific target of the inquiry, co-sponsored by South District Councilmember Mickey Kearns, Delaware District Councilmember Mike LoCurto, and Lovejoy District Councilmember Rich Fontana, was clear, however: the jaunty Tim Wanamaker, then chief of the Office of Strategic Planning, who had just left for a new gig as city manager of Inglewood, California.

From the beginning of the Brown administration, Wanamaker was notoriously scarce in City Hall, perpetually on the conference circuit. A holdover from the Masiello administration, which brought him in from Prince George’s County, Maryland, he was rumored to be on the hunt for a new position elsewhere. His staff always politely denied those rumors, though they acknowledged that the boss did seem to be out of town a lot.

How much was he out of town? The answer finally arrived in this week’s Common Council proceedings. Over the last three months, city departments have been complying with the Council’s request for travel expenses, one by one. On July 1, the Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corporation, of which Wanamaker was president, took its turn.

Here are the numbers: Under the auspices of BERC, Wanamaker took 36 trips in an 20-month period. He was traveling or attending conferences for 139 days. BERC paid about $15,400 toward Wanamaker’s travel, according to its filing with the Common Council. His itineraries took him frequently to Washington, DC, as well as to Boston, Los Angeles, and (in the winter months) Orlando.

In all, BERC footed travel expenses for 54 junkets for 23 people, a few of whom were neither staff nor board members of BERC. The bill was about $36,000.

The dollar amounts do not seem staggering, even in a city where a $1,000 grant can make or break an initiative. Nonetheless, at Tuesday’s Council meeting, Kearns suggested that BERC should be pressed for further details. Conferences and networking are valuable, he said, offering examples of useful junkets he and other councilmembers had made. But if the mayor’s office felt it necessary to send Jessica Maglietto and Oswaldo Mestre—who coordinate Buffalo CitiStat and the Division of Citizen Services, respectively—to a conference in Baltimore on CitiStat, why didn’t the mayor’s office budget for the trip? Why did BERC pay?

“We shouldn’t be hiding behind shadow governments to do our travel,” Kearns said. “We should be upfront and honest.”

By “shadow governments,” Kearns meant the semi-autonomous authorities and agencies that operate outside direct control of city government‚ such as BERC, BURA, BMHA—the so-called “alphabet soup” agencies whose boards are largely controlled by the mayor. LoCurto suggested that the governance of these independent agencies needed to be examined and possibly reformed.

Ellicott District Councilmember Brian Davis responded with a long, passionate defense of Wanamaker.(“I don’t know where to begin,” he said, then, apparently not knowing where to end, talked for about 10 minutes.) Wanamaker sat on many boards and played many roles, Davis said; his travel allowed him to bring home fresh, new ideas to implement in Buffalo. It’s not the Council’s place to micromanage city departments and authorities, he argued. Masten District Councilmember Demone Smith joined Davis in Wanamaker’s defense, calling the whole inquiry into travel expenses “gotcha politics.” If councilmembers wanted an audit of travel expenses, Smith said, they should have enlisted the city comptroller’s office.

North District Councilmember Joe Golombek used the occasion to open up a discourse on the need for thorough reform of the way the city does business. He discussed dissolving or reforming BERC and BMHA; retooling the way community development block grants are disbursed; reforming hiring practices to prefer professional credentials over political connections. (“I’ve heard it said that if you work for Democratic headquarters, you can work for the Council,” Golombek said, provoking quiet laughter.)

Golombek spoke at least as long as Davis did, but the ideas he expressed were far more provocative than Davis’ “shame on you” defense: He asked if city officials had the guts to take on real issues like housing vacancies? Will new economic development chief Brian Reilly be set up for failure the way his predecessor Rich Tobe was? “I hope this is not just political rhetoric,” Golombek said of Kearns’ and LoCurto’s remarks. “I hope something comes of it.”

geoff kelly

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