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

Buffalo Teachers Union Says Kennedy Will Have To Answer For Supporting Election Day Change

Despite opposition from the Buffalo Teachers Federation to a bill moving the district’s school board election to November, it passed in both houses of the state Legislature.

Now the union says the legislation’s sponsors will have to answer for their support next election.

“They only thing I can say is that all of our candidates are interviewed by a panel of teachers,” BTF President Phil Rumore said. “Then it goes to our political action committee, to our executive committee and to our council of delegates and from what I’m hearing right now, is that many teachers are really angry.”

Most of that anger seems to currently be reserved for state Senator Tim Kennedy who Rumore said pushed for the bills passage this year. He also said it would be difficult for the Assembly sponsor, Crystal Peoples Stokes to get the union’s endorsement, even though both lawmakers have had it in the past.

Kennedy’s office had no comment on the union’s criticism Friday.

“It’s something that he’s going to have to answer to when the election comes up,” Rumore said.

He would not rule out the possibility BTF could endorse or even draft another candidate to challenge Kennedy in a primary.

Erie County Comptroller Offers Hotline For Clerks To Report Undocumented Immigrants

An elected official in Western New York is offering county clerks and their employees across the state, a way to report undocumented immigrants who apply for driver’s licenses to federal authorities.

New York State’s new “Green Light” law which grants those licenses, also provides protections to make sure people in the country illegally don’t face deportation as a result. Attorney General Tish James, D, in a legal opinion earlier this week, pointed out the legislation prevents disclosure of Department of Motor Vehicles’ records to agencies that primarily enforce immigration laws.

However, Erie County Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw has offered his office’s Whistleblower Hotline, as a way for clerks to anonymously report those records.

“To preserve the integrity of our electoral process and protect law enforcement, I expanded my Whistleblower Hotline to provide a direct and anonymous tip to ICE from County Clerks or their employees who suspect an illegal alien has requested a driver’s license,” Mychajliw said. “The threat from Governor Cuomo to remove County Clerks from office is real. I’m simply providing them a tool to report illegal immigrants to federal law enforcement without the fear of being forcibly kicked out of office.”

The comptroller also personally extended the offer to Erie County Clerk Mickey Kearns, a vocal critic of the law who has vowed not to process the licenses. We’ve reached out to Kearns for a response.

Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz, D, offered his own response on social media Friday morning.

“For the record, when I was comptroller I created the Whistleblower Hotline as a way for citizens to report the waste, fraud and abuse of county resources,” he said. “This use of it by the comptroller is, in itself, an abuse of county resources.”

Poloncarz said if Mychajliw wants to create a hotline “to advance his own political ambition,” he should pay for it himself.

Steelworkers File Charges Against Tesla With NLRB

From The Morning Memo:

The United Steelworkers filed charges this week against Tesla in Buffalo with the National Labor Relations Board.

According to the NLRB public website, the allegations are related to “coercive actions” like surveillance and “discharge,” for instance layoffs and refusal to hire. Spectrum News has issued a Freedom of Information request in order to see the entire document.

In late 2018, the local chapter of USW and the International Brotherhood of Electric Workers started an organizing campaign at the Buffalo facility. That included passing out informational leaflets in front of the state-funded factory in December.

“Tesla greatly values our employees at our Buffalo facility, and respects their right to organize. The ULP allegation is without merit and we will be responding as part of the NLRB process,” a Tesla spokesperson said in a statement.

Union leaders said a collectively bargained contract could ensure employees are paid fairly. However, the chapter has been quiet since on how those talks, and support for organizing from employees, has progressed.

According to the NLRB website, Unfair Labor Practice complaints prompt an investigation by regional field inspectors and attorneys. More than half of the charges are withdrawn or dismissed and in cases where an investigation finds the complaints have merit, the majority are settled between the parties.

Senate Passes Legislation To Change Date Of Buffalo School Board Election

Update (3:56 p.m.) The Assembly has passed the amended bill.

The state Senate has passed legislation to move Buffalo Public School Board elections from May to November.

A coalition of parents, community leaders, clergy and business owners in the city have been pushing for the measure for years. They believe  holding the election on the same day as the general election will save the local board of elections money and increase what has historically been low voter turnout.

State Senate sponsor Tim Kennedy, D-Buffalo, said school board is perhaps the most important election for the community.

“The voter turnout in May has been abysmal, embarrassing. This year with unprecedented attention being paid to the Buffalo School Board, 16 people running for Buffalo School Board, at-large seats giving everybody a reason to come out to vote, 6.6 percent of the electorate decided to take part,” Kennedy said during his floor remarks. “That is unfortunate. That needs to change.”

The Assembly has already passed the measure but due to a technical amendment will need to vote again. Language was clarified to make clear current board members will be able to serve out their terms.

The Buffalo Teachers Federation and NYSUT opposed the bill, arguing it unfairly targets the city and that even though turnout is low in May, it is passionate and educated people who come out to vote. Both Syracuse and Rochester hold their elections in November.

If the Assembly does pass the bill again, the governor still needs to sign it.

Batavia Downs Expanding ‘High-Rollers’ Program Following Gaming Commission Inspection

From the Morning Memo:

Batavia Downs and Western Regional Off-Track Betting is doubling down on a “high-rollers” program despite questions raised by media outlets and local lawmakers about the program’s implementation.

Management announced it intends to expand the “Suitestakes” ticket giveaways at their gaming facility. It plans to enter into a three-year agreement with Pegula Sports and Entertainment for a suite at the Buffalo Bills football stadium. It just finished the first year of a three-year suite contract at the Key Bank Center in Buffalo, as well.

“Our Suitestakes program has and continues to help us achieve record results,” Marketing Director Ryan Haseneur said. “We will be expanding the number of times and methods with which we distribute the tickets to ensure future success.  Revenues from the facility are distributed to the shareholders of Western OTB including the 15 Western and Central New York counties and 2 cities of Buffalo and Rochester.  Our success means more money is given to those municipalities.”

The program is intended to be a perk for customers who regularly spend money at the racino facility, however former state Senator George Maziarz suggested earlier this year the tickets were actually being given to friends and family of board members and management. Several news outlets, as well as Niagara County lawmakers, have requested access to the “high-rollers” list but OTB has denied, arguing its customers have a right to privacy.

OTB leaders have vehemently defended the program though, noting it has been in place since 2014 and recently received a prestigious casino marketing award. It said, despite withholding the names from the general public, invite the NYS Gaming Commission to review the allegations, and two inspectors accepted the invitation.

“Following this review, the inspectors advised WROTB that they were pleased with our cooperation and fully satisfied that the records they reviewed and the interviews they conducted did not raise any issues of concern for the Gaming Commission,” President Henry Wojtaszek said.

The board plans to consider the resolution to enter into the agreement at the Bills’ stadium at its meeting this month.

Seneca Casinos Preparing To Start Sports Betting

The Seneca Nation of Indians said Monday it is preparing to bring sports betting in its casinos, although the timeline isn’t clear yet.

Last week, the New York Gaming Commission approved rules and regulations for licensing, owning and operating sports gaming facilities. The rules apply only to the four Upstate casinos and Native American facilities and wagers must be placed in person.

The U.S. Supreme Court struck down a ban on sports betting last year, effectively opening up the industry outside of the state of Nevada. However, while the move does not come as a big surprise, the Senecas had remained relatively quiet about their plans, waiting for New York State to work out its regulatory structure.

“Now that regulations for in-person sports betting have been approved in New York, the Seneca Nation will move forward accordingly with our preparations to offer this new and exciting amenity to our casino guests. As we always have, we will ensure that our operations offer our guests the best atmosphere and experience available anywhere in the region,” spokesperson Phil Pantano said.

The state Legislature is still weighing expanding the industry to allow online and mobile betting, as well as wagers at off-track betting and race track facilities. The governor has repeatedly voiced skepticism about whether a deal can get done this year and questioned the constitutionality of the bill.

A source said the legislation still appears to have some life though in the final days of session. The Senecas, who could potentially have some exclusivity rights in their region, said they are in favor.

“While we make these preparations, we will also continue to monitor discussions surrounding the potential for mobile sports wagering in New York, which we feel will elevate the guest experience and excitement even further,” Pantano said.

The Senecas own and operate gaming facilities in Niagara Falls, Buffalo and Salamanca. Otherwise, as the law currently stands, del Lago in the Finger Lakes would be the closest casino where someone from Western New York could place a wager in person.

Monroe County Executive Invites Election Challenger To Advocate Against Green Light Bill Together

UPDATE (4:15 p.m.) Bello has accepted the invitation.

“I am pleased to partner with the County Executive and share my expertise on licensing issues. I look forward to meeting with State Senators and sharing my concerns with the present proposal to confer drivers’ licenses to undocumented individuals,” he said.

 

No need to wait until 2020 for the Green Light bill to become a campaign issue.

The proposal to give driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants is front and center in several local races across the state. That includes the contest for Monroe County Executive.

Incumbent Republican Cheryl Dinolfo sent an open letter to her Democratic challenger Adam Bello, asking him to join her Monday in Albany to advocate against the bill’s passage. Bello, currently the Monroe Count Clerk, has said he has concerns about the legislation and the difficulties it will present for his staff, however he has vowed to follow the law if passed.

“Given my longstanding opposition to this proposal, and your stated concerns about this bill specifically, now is the time to put politics aside and work in a spirit of bipartisanship to stop this misguided legislation from passing, before it is too late,” Dinolfo wrote.

The county executive pointed out, when she was clerk in 2007, she and other clerks across the state successfully rallied against then-Governor Elliot Spitzer’s attempt to give driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants. She said “even in the midst of this campaign season” they should cast aside politics and advocate for the community’s best interest this year.

Special Counsel Issues Subpoenas In Niagara County Bid-Rigging Investigation

A spokesperson for the Monroe County District Attorney’s Office has confirmed investigators have issued subpoenas requesting information regarding Four Points Communication.

Former state Senator George Maziarz, R, during a February press conference, alleged a Niagara County government grant writing contract was rigged for the company. As evidence, he pointed to testimony received as part of the discovery process during his own alleged political corruption litigation.

Following the accusations, Niagara County District Attorney Caroline Wojtaszek, D, recused herself and called for a special investigation because Maziarz accused her husband, former County GOP Chairman Henry Wojtaszek, of being involved in the scheme. Wojtaszek has maintained he has done nothing wrong and the accusations have been vetted and dismissed by courts.

Administrative Judge Paula Feroleto appointed Monroe County DA Sandra Doorley to investigate the accusations.

Collins and Cuomo Find Common Ground On The Lake

From the Morning Memo:

The International Joint Commission makes strange bedfellows in New York. Regardless of party-affiliation or level of government, elected officials have pretty consistently criticized the IJC for its management of Lake Ontario water levels over the last several years.

WNY Republican Rep. Chris Collins said that he, Gov. Andrew Andrew Cuomo and U.S. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer “basically agree on nothing other than the impact Plan 2014 has had in a negative sense since it was implemented.”

The congressman and the governor would be best described as political adversaries, and have reputedly traded verbal barbs over the years. Cuomo even urged his lieutenant governor, Kathy Hochul, who briefly held Collins’ seat a few years back, to try to take him out in the last election cycle. (There were, of course, ulterior political motives for the governor’s call, and Hochul declined, opting to seek re-election to her current post as his No. 2 instead).

However, Collins actually agreed with Cuomo, who recently threatened to sue the IJC if it failed to adjust its regulatory plan and pay damages to the state for the millions its spent on repairs and flood mitigation.

“The fact is, in the treaty, the IJC is responsible for financial compensation when a community is disproportionately impacted, and they admit in that plan that there will be a disproportionate impact on the Southern shore of Lake Ontario,” Collins said.

The only problem, the congressman said, is the body made up of three American commissioners and three Canadian ones, has no money. The governments of the two countries could perhaps come up with the cash, but Collins does not think it’s likely.

“The communities are upset for good reason because there’s a man-made piece in this but there’s no one here on Capitol Hill that’s going to get ready to write a big check,” he said.

He said the best solution is to suspend Plan 2014, which he will believes will prevent further damages in the future. So far, however, the IJC has shown no interest in actually moving in that direction.

Greece Supervisor Says American IJC Chairs Want To Abandon Plan 2014

From the Morning Memo:

Greece Town Supervisor Bill Reilich posted Tuesday evening on Facebook, the U.S. commissioners of the International Joint Commission are calling for a meeting to propose the suspension of Plan 2014.

Politicians, including Reilich and the governor, have regularly criticized the plan, which regulates outflows for Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River, because they said it contributed to flooding along the Upstate New York lakeshore in 2017 and this year.

“On behalf of the residents of the Town of Greece I am sending our support to this effort by U.S. Chair Jane Corwin and her colleagues. I am cautiously optimistic that we may see some progress,” Reilich said.

The supervisor said he confirmed the information with Corwin and Rep. Chris Collins, R-NY-27. Earlier in the day, Collins criticized the new Canadian chair, Pierre Béland, for saying the IJC would never knowingly approve a plan that would cause damage to a specific community.

He sent a letter to Béland saying as much earlier this week. The congressman urged him to join with other commissioners to reinstate the previous plan from 1958.

“Since day one we knew our shorelines would face devastation if this plan took effect, which is why I actively spoke out against Plan 2014 before it was signed into law,“ Collins said. “Since its implementation, the Lake Ontario shoreline community has experienced severe flooding which has led to a negative impact on the local economy and a decrease in property values.”

Earlier this week, Gov. Andrew Cuomo also threatened the state would sue the IJC if it did not take corrective actions and reimburse the state for the money it has spent on flood mitigation.