Ryan Whalen

Ryan Whalen is Capital Tonight's Western New York political reporter. He covers politics in Rochester, Buffalo and the Southern Tier. Ryan was a general assignment reporter for Time Warner Cable News Buffalo for nearly five years and worked in several other markets before joining the Cap Tonight team in 2016.

Posts by Ryan Whalen

Rochester-area Assembly Members Introduce Grease Trap Safety Bill

From the Morning Memo:

State lawmakers want to enhance safety regulations following the tragic death of a toddler who fell into a grease trap this week at a Rochester Tim Horton’s restaurant.

Democratic Assembly Members Harry Bronson and Jamie Romeo have submitted legislation aimed at ensuring similar incidents don’t happen in the future. The proposal would adopt four key safety provisions.

  • The covers to these traps would no longer be permitted to be plastic and must be made of metal and rated for heavy road traffic.
  • The traps must be secured with a bolt or locking mechanism at all times when they are unattended.
  • There must be signage that is clearly visible at the location of the trap indicating the danger.
  • Annual inspections would be required to ensure compliance with the provisions.

“Every parent’s worst fear is that harm will come to their child,” the legislators said in a joint statement. “Today we continue to mourn the heartbreaking death of a young boy and we grieve with his family. The death of any child is tragic and the fact that similar grease trap incidents occurred in other states is deeply disturbing. That is why we have introduced legislation which would ensure that this type of devastating tragedy never occurs again in New York State.”

They said the bill will be filed this week to be considered during the next legislative session.

State Board of Elections Weighs In On Erie County Executive Campaign Debate

From the Morning Memo:

A representative from the State Board of Elections said questions about whether the Erie County executive’s campaign should pay for the use of a security detail at parades should be decided locally.

Republican-endorsed candidate Lynne Dixon claimed Wednesday, County Executive Mark Poloncarz should reimburse the county for sheriff’s deputies who escorted him during six parades over the Independence Day weekend. She said Poloncarz was campaigning and not working as a county employee at the time.

State BOE Public Information Officer John Conklin said the “threshold question” is whether the detail is a misuse of county resources for a private or non-governmental purpose. He said that is generally not an Election Law question and is usually related to local ethics code or standards of conduct that come from the General Municipal Law.

In Erie County, those violations are determined by a Board of Ethics.

“If the county has decided there is a credible threat against the Chief Executive that may be a reason to assign a security detail at the county’s expense,” Conklin said. “Based on the statement from the Sheriff that may be the case and it would mitigate against the argument that the County Executive has misused county resources for his own private purposes.”

However, how the county arrived to the decision there was a “credible threat,” Conklin said, is a “perfectly legitimate question” for the Dixon campaign to ask. He said details pertaining to whether the process was transparent, who was involved in the decision, if the county attorney weighed in, and what evidence was used to arrive at the decision are all relevant.

“Under state law if a public official uses state resources for a private or non-governmental purpose the official could reimburse the taxpayer, like a governor reimbursing the state for use of the state plane to attend a private fundraising function,” Conklin said. “He has the approval of JCOPE (the Joint Commission on Public Ethics) to do that.”

Conklin said if an ethics board determined reimbursement was necessary, the state Board of Elections would rule on whether the reimbursement was properly disclosed on a campaign finance report.

Challenger Calls On Erie County Executive To Reimburse Taxpayers For Security Detail

Democratic Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz has had a visible security detail with him at public events since late-March.

His Republican-endorsed opponent Lynne Dixon is calling into question the use of that detail over Independence Day weekend. Dixon said on July 3 and 4, Poloncarz campaigned while walking in six parades in Western New York.

At each of those events, she said he had the taxpayer funded detail and in at least one parade, a county vehicle. Dixon said her opponent’s recent campaign finance report showed no reimbursement to the county for the resources.

“This is an abuse of taxpayer dollars and an abuse of his position as County Executive. These things aren’t his own personal perk as County Executive that he can use however he wants,” she said. “I’m calling on the County Executive to reimburse county taxpayers for the cost incurred to them on July 3rd and July 4th, when he misused county personnel and a county vehicle to benefit his campaign.”

Dixon complained there has been no details about the status of any investigation, which led to law enforcement providing the detail. She said if there is a credible threat to Poloncarz’s safety, than it could be dangerous to others as well.

The candidate called on the county executive and Erie County Sheriff Tim Howard to answer questions on the matter. A spokesperson for Howard declined to comment on whether the Poloncarz campaign should reimburse the county.

“Law enforcement agencies did deem credible threats, hence the security detail,” ECSO Public Information Officer Scott Zylka said.

County spokesperson Pete Anderson said Zylka’s recognition of the threat answered Dixon’s questions. He did not address the issue of reimbursement.

Erie County Republican Board of Elections Commissioner Ralph Mohr said under New York State Election law, any use of government resources for a campaign should be reported and reimbursed. He said it could not be reported as an in kind contribution because government entities are not allowed to contribute to campaigns.

However, he said without knowing more information, he could not say for sure whether the security detail was technically in aid of the campaign. Mohr said that ruling would be up to the state Board of Elections.

We’ve reached out to the state BOE for more details.

Reed Open To Considering Support For “Red Light Act”

From The Morning Memo:

New York lawmakers and the governor expected legal objections to the state’s new Green Light law from President Donald Trump’s administration.

There appears to be some congressional pushback to the law which grants driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants, as well. Legislation introduced by Rep. Chris Collins to withhold federal highway funding from states that allow the driver’s licenses could have support from another New York Republican, although he wouldn’t make a formal commitment.

“I’ve seen what Chris Collins is discussing,” Congressman Tom Reed said. “I’ve talked to him on the floor in regards to it and we’ll see because I didn’t see the final text.”

Reed said he would be “very open to considering supporting” Collins’s Red Light Act because he is opposed to the Green Light Bill.

“I am opposed to the giving of licenses to illegal immigrants,” he said. “I think that is part of an extreme agenda that doesn’t get to the issue at hand and could lead to more danger on our roads to be perfectly honest with you.”

Reed will probably not get a chance to officially support the legislation. With a Democratic congress, it seems unlikely the bill will even reach the floor for a vote.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s spokesman Jason Conwall said it is “nothing more than political grandstanding” from Collins “who’s been indicted on felony charges” and knows the bill has no chance of passing.

Rep. Reed Disagrees With Trump’s Tweets But Doesn’t Believe He’s A Racist

Southern Tier Republican Rep. Tom Reed spent most of a Tuesday conference call with reporters discussing his feelings on President Donald Trump’s inflammatory tweets over the weekend.

“I don’t agree with the tweet,” he said. “I think the sentiment can be interpreted, rightfully, as offensive and I think it was inappropriate.”

On Sunday, Trump posted a series of tweets, directed at four progressive freshman congresswomen, including New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Democrats have widely panned the statements as racist and criticized Republicans for failing to condemn them.

Reed’s office previously sent a statement to some media outlets – although Spectrum News and others on the call had not received it – opposing the “form” but not the substance of the president’s message. When we asked specifically what he disagreed with, he elaborated.

“Obviously the reference to going back to the country that you came from, I can understand how that can be interpreted the way that it’s being interpreted,” Reed said.

As for criticism he or other members of the GOP did not respond quickly or strongly enough, he said there’s not much he can do.

“You’re never going to pacify that voice that raises that objection,” Reed said. “I’ve had people argue that I need to be more passionate with my objections and that the voice isn’t loud enough in regards to our objection and so I don’t know how to do that in regards to my style.”

The congressman indicated he did raise his concerns about the tweets directly with the administration. At the same time, he defended the president with whom he said he’s developed a relationship.

“I am confident in telling you that I do not believe that he is a racist. I have seen firsthand his heart and I will tell you I think that heart is not that one of a racist,” Reed said.

He reiterated, he does not agree with the “extremist agenda” of the Democratic congresswomen and believes their ideology is not good for the long-term well-being of the country. He said he doesn’t support a House resolution condemning the tweets, which was expected to come for a vote Tuesday night,

DCCC Ridicules Collins Fundraising Effort, $500K Campaign Loan

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee seemed to taunt Republican Congressman Chris Collins on Tuesday for his modest fundraising effort so far this year.

According to his most recent federal campaign finance report, Collins has raised just a little more than $14,000 this year in contributions, the bulk of it coming in the last quarter. The congressman, meanwhile loaned his own campaign $500,000 this quarter raising his total cash on hand to more than $665,000.

“After raising zero dollars from a single human being in the first quarter of the year, Criminal Caucus Chairman, Chris Collins has loaned himself half a million dollars to keep his failing campaign afloat,” DCCC Spokesperson Christine Bennett said. “It’s clear Collins is prepping for a nasty primary. We wish him the best of luck.”

The Republican is awaiting a federal trial related to insider trading charges in February of 2020. He has not yet said if he will run again next year.

However, the multimillionaire indicated Monday on Twitter, if he does, money won’t be a problem.

“While I ultimately will make a decision about re-election later this year, every one of my campaigns has had the necessary resources to get my message out,” he said. “This one, should I run, will be no different.”

Current Republican state Senator Chris Jacobs has already officially announced his candidacy for New York’s 27th District. He reported raising nearly $450,000 in just six weeks.

Jacobs has also loaned his own campaign a hefty sum, to the tune of $325,000, putting his available cash at roughly three-quarters of a million dollars.

Rep. Collins Introduces “Red Light Act”

In response to New York’s new “Green Light Law,” Republican Congressman Chris Collins is proposing the “Red Light Act.”

The legislation would withhold federal highway funds from any state that grants driver’s licenses or identification cards to immigrants in the country illegally.

“Once again, Governor Cuomo has put his socialist agenda ahead of the safety of American citizens,” Collins said. “Governor Cuomo should be enforcing laws that protect Americans instead of supporting those who break our laws. Citizens should feel safe behind the wheel, but now in New York there will be a strong likelihood that illegals could be driving uninsured and unregistered vehicles wreaking havoc on our roads.”

The Green Light Law, which is facing a federal challenge in Erie County, where Collins lives, would go into effect in December. The congressman’s bill, if enacted, would begin withholding funds in Fiscal Year 2020 and every fiscal year moving forward.

“Cuomo has threatened the lives of New Yorkers who are legal U.S. citizens with this legislation,” Collins said. “If he wants to help illegal immigrants avoid the law while threatening highway safety, he can pay for it.”

There are currently 12 other states besides New York who allow otherwise undocumented immigrants to apply for licenses.

Ortt Reiterates Need For Federal Government To Pitch In On Lake Ontario Mitigation

In the coming months, a new Lake Ontario Resiliency and Economic Development Initiative commission will decide how to dole out up to $300 million state dollars to lakefront communities.

The funding was approved by the state Legislature last month in the Capital Budget. State Senator Rob Ortt, R-North Tonawanda, said the budget specifically dedicated $100 million to the initiative and he expects the remainder to come from a pot of $385 million approved for generic capital funding.

“My guess is that they’ll get the $300 (million) between the two pots and certainly it’s my job to make sure they do because that is what was said publicly,” he said.

Ortt is hopeful the state can potentially free up even more money, perhaps by funding state park needs along Lake Ontario from a different source, leaving more for municipal and private projects. Even so, he admits there will likely be more requests than there will be cash available through the REDI initiative.

“That’s one of the reasons I made a request to the attorney general and the governor to go after the federal government,” he said. “The federal government has to be a part of this because the state is not going to be able to just continue to fund this in infintum”

At Ortt’s urging, the governor did ask the state Attorney General to look into potentially suing the federal government to help mitigate extensive flooding both in 2017 and this year. The state Senator said the AG did reach out to him last week regarding the issue but they haven’t been able to connect yet.

Ortt said the governor meanwhile has asked the state Department of Environmental Conservation to have its legal department explore options, as well.

“I think they’re holding that, sort of see where we go,” he said. “Maybe the federal government comes up with funding.”

Ortt said under the International Joint Commission’s own regulatory plan for Lake Ontario, Plan 2014, it admitted there would be damages and financial impacts to New York State communities and has a responsibility to help foot the bill.

Democratic Erie County Executive Says He Cannot Support Green Light Law

It has been an Erie County Democrat leading the opposition against New York’s new law granting driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrant.

However, many consider County Clerk Mickey Kearns a Democrat in name only. He’s run several times with the endorsement of the local Republican Committee and has been basically excommunicated from his own organization.

Wednesday though, another Erie County Democrat, of whom no one will question ties to the party, also came out against the “Green Light” law. County Executive Mark Poloncarz released a press release questioning its constitutionality and stressing the “necessity of ensuring non-citizens are prevented from voting.”

“Ultimately I do not believe this law benefits the people of Erie County and I cannot support it,” he said.

To this point Poloncarz had not taken a hard stance on the issue, despite consistent calls from his Republican-endorsed county executive opponent Lynne Dixon to do so. He did however support Kearns request for aid from the County Attorney’s Office in filing a federal lawsuit this week.

Poloncarz clarified his opposition though, with another point he has consistently made over the past few weeks.

“However, in a civilized, democratic society we do not get to selectively pick the laws we want to enforce and ignore those we dislike,” he said. “As such, if a federal judge determines the bill to be constitutional, I expect all county officials and employees to respect the decision of the court.

Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo also said this week he has question about whether the new law will hold up in court, even though he signed it after the bill got a vote of confidence from the state Attorney General’s office. Poloncarz said some people are intentionally using the issue to divide the community.

Green Light Law Reverberates In Local Government Politics

From the Morning Memo:

The lawsuits are beginning to pile up against New York state’s new “Green Light” Law which allows undocumented immigrants to apply for driver’s licenses.

A day after Erie County Clerk Mickey Kearns filed a civil action in federal court, the Monroe County Legislature authorized its county executive, Cheryl Dinolfo, to bring her own suit.

The Legislature voted 17-10 to authorize Dinolfo, a Republican, to move forward, asserting specifically that the law violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment “by putting citizens and non-citizens on unequal footing under the law.”

Dinolfo thanked county lawmakers following the Tuesday night vote.

“Our goal is simple: to challenge and stop Albany from implementing this policy that would put state law at odds with federal law by giving licenses to those who are here illegally,” she said. “I’m especially proud to be among a group of county officials, both Democrat and Republican, who are standing tall against Albany on behalf of our residents, who have made their opposition to this law heard loud and clear.”

Dinolfo said Kearns and other county clerks situations are different than hers because, since the subject is directly connected to their statutory obligations, they are empowered to bring lawsuits on their own. Democratic Monroe County Clerk Adam Bello, who is running against Dinolfo for county executive, has expressed concerns about the new law but also indicated he will enforce it.

“Cheryl Dinolfo is taking a page out of Donald Trump’s playbook – using government resources to bolster her campaign and distract from her record,” Bello said.

“We have real challenges facing our community that warrant the immediate attention of county government and its resources. Unfortunately the County Executive would rather spend money and scarce resources pursuing a lawsuit against legislation that is already subject to litigation. This unnecessary, duplicative lawsuit is nothing more than political grandstanding by the County Executive to aid her re-election campaign at taxpayer expense.”

Dinolfo said the lawsuit will have no “net cost” to taxpayers and has directed the law department to file a complaint as soon as possible. Her office said it is also reviewing Kearns complaint and has not ruled out consolidating suits.

The Rensselaer County Clerk has also said he plans to file his own lawsuit.