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

Jamestown Mayor Won’t Seek Reelection

From the Morning Memo:

Longtime Democratic Mayor Sam Teresi of Jamestown announced during a City Council work session Monday evening he would not be seeking another term.

Teresi has held the seat since 2000. The mayor said he does plan to serve out the last year of his final four year term.

The announcement comes as a bit of a surprise to many around Jamestown politics who expected another campaign, but Teresi made clear he will not seek or accept his party’s nomination.

“There’s a time for everything,” he said. “There’s a time to run. There’s a time to walk and there’s a time to step back and do other things and that time has come for me.”

Teresi, who is 58, did not say specifically what he plans to do after 2019. However, he briefly became emotional as he said he planned to follow the advice his father used to give him: Take care of your name, your family and your health.

The mayor’s announcement comes just a few days after current At-Large Council Member Andrew Liuzzo announced he planned to run for the seat on the Republican line. Local politicos expect other candidates to announce their interest in the seat soon too.

This is the first time an incumbent will not run for Jamestown mayor since 1993.

Rep. Reed Takes Aim At Cuomo Again

As has become a habit lately, Rep. Tom Reed, R-NY-23, teed off Thursday on the Cuomo Administration.

This time, Reed criticized the Dream Act which would make undocumented immigrants eligible for state financial aid. The legislature has already passed the bill and although it hasn’t been sent to the governor yet, Cuomo has already expressed his support.

“Giving free college tuition to illegal immigrants is not fair for the hard-working families of New York already struggling under Governor Cuomo’s oppressively high taxes and college’s ridiculously expensive tuition,” Reed said. “We care about the mothers and fathers who lie awake at night wondering how they are going to pay for both the tax bill and college for not only their kids, but now the college of others as well.”

Instead, Reed said the state should be focused on legislation aimed at forcing colleges to contain their costs. His federal REDUCE Act proposes a number of measures including requiring colleges to have a plan to keep tuition increases below the rate of inflation.

The DREAM Act is the latest initiative for which the Southern Tier Republican has gone after the governor. Late last year, he criticized the Cuomo’s support of legislation to grant undocumented immigrants the ability to get drivers licenses. He also sent him a letter expressing concern over the subsidies the state gave to Amazon in exchange for the company locating its second headquarters in New York City.

Reed, perhaps is filling a void as the governor’s chief congressional critic. For awhile, that title seemed to belong to another Upstate Republican, Chris Collins.

But Collins, facing federal insider trading charges, has been relatively quiet lately.

Trucking Association of NY Points Out Tractor Trailer Ban Has Economic Impact

The Trucking Association of New York said it supports the ban of tractor trailers on major highways across Western New York.

It said Tuesday’s 21-vehicle pile up which had a truck involved, is a perfect example of why the restrictions are in place. President Kendra Hems said the association is working closely with the state Department of Transportation, the Thruway Authority and the governor’s office and is spreading information over a multitude of channels to keep the industry informed.

“We can’t, nor would we defend any driver or company that asks their drivers to violate the ban and at this point it’s going to take this type of penalty to keep them off the road then that’s something that as an industry they’re going to need to be aware of,” Hems said.

At the same time, she stressed the importance of getting trucks back on the road as soon as possible. Hems said many drivers are independent contractors and whenever they can’t work they are losing money.

“Once this storm has passed and roads are clear, you know, we need to do everything to get those roads reopened to trucks as quickly as possible, because again, safety is a big concern but these trucks are the lifeblood of our economy. They deliver everything that we rely on every day and a 24-hour closure can have an impact that takes over a week to recover from in terms of getting those deliveries made and getting people restocked,” she said.

Hems said, for example, there are fuel trucks that can’t make their deliveries. She said that’s important during a polar vortex when people need gas for personal and emergency vehicles, plows, generators and even their homes.

She said they also deliver groceries to stores and raw materials to factories. If the ban goes on for too long she suggested plants may have to temporarily close down their assembly lines.

And that’s why she said it’s hard to put an exact number on the economic impact of an extended tractor trailer ban. When asked if it would be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, Hems estimated more.

The governor heavily criticized truck drivers Thursday morning for violating the ban and suggested those who violate could be criminally charged. State police are also making a concerted effort, ticketing drivers at toll entrances.

Hems said drivers need to realize the state is enhancing enforcement during this weather event and reiterated the safety of the drivers and the public remains the number one priority.

Nearly Shuttered WNY Children’s Psych Center Slated For $30 Million Upgrade

The state Dormitory Authority is seeking proposals for an estimated $30 million upgrade project to the Western New York Children’s Psychiatric Center.

The center in West Seneca was slated to close and merge with the adult facility in Buffalo. However, last April, after years of community pushback, the governor announced the CPC would stay put.

The Request For Proposals calls for a roughly 48,000 square foot new addition to replace the current inpatient units and supports services wings. It includes multiple sleeping units with single bedrooms, bathrooms, group/visiting spaces, secure outdoor recreation areas, staff space, a kitchen and pharmacy.

“The existing environment of the facility is well maintained yet presents significant supervision problems and has experienced The Joint Commission accreditation violations,” the RFP reads.

The old wings will be decommissioned and prepared for future demolition. The project will also include upgrades to the existing administration and educational spaces.

Suprisingly, the RFP was released quietly last week despite the significant attention the fight to keep the facility open received. Proposals are due by February 19 and a winner could be announced as soon as March 5.

“This is such great news for all those families that would have been affected by the decision to move this facility downtown,” West Seneca Supervisor Sheila Meegan, D, said. “We could not be more pleased that the governor has seen his way to keeping the facility where it belongs and affording all those families the opportunity to heal. This was such an incredible fight by so very many and to see this kind of an investment and a facility that is truly going to help so many today and for many many many years to come. Truly a blessing and would like to thank the Governor for his willingness to see this facility for all it has accomplished over the years and served so many families.”

The CPC serves children across Western New York with severe emotional and behavioral problems.

Cuomo Issues Preemptive Warning To Power Companies

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, D-NY, said he plans to be on storm duty all day.

The governor was in Buffalo Wednesday morning but noted he had already been in contact with the mayors of Rochester and Syracuse too. He said he was prepared to go wherever needed if any serious issues arise.

But as Cuomo made a point about his own storm preparedness, he issued a warning to the power companies, they better be ready as well.

“I want the utilities to hear me today,” he said. “We expect a better level of service than we have been getting from the utility companies in terms of both communication of the problem and resolution of the problem.”

Cuomo said it’s not just the snow and the wind he’s concerned about but the sub-zero temperatures forecasted. He said because of the cold, there are potential for power outages to be a real hazard.

The governor said the utility companies are paid to handle weather events but they haven’t done very well in the past. He said the state has ways to help but they need to know where power is out.

“NYSEG especially has to do better job than they’ve done in the past storms in terms of communicating the number of outages,” Cuomo said.

The company seemed to reject Cuomo’s criticism though. It said it begins to proactively communicate to customers and elected officials ahead of storm.

“The Company is in direct contact with local municipalities, issues press releases, and directly emails impacted customers with updates,” spokesperson Kevin Ortiz said. “NYSEG also encourages customers to sign up for Outage Alerts to receive updates throughout an event automatically by phone, text, or email as the company updates the status of any restoration process in their area. The Company also provides updates through its social media channels on Twitter and Facebook.”

National Grid also said it has a comprehensive plan that includes community outreach in the event of emergencies. Cuomo said power companies have no excuse to be unprepared for anything.

“I see 100 year storms five times a year now. It’s just a different reality so adjust to it,” he said.

The governor said the state and local governments take extra precaution now, as they do their best to forecast the impacts of storms. While he had no problem criticizing the utilities, he said he would not make the mistake of calling out forecasters again, after getting “bombarded” after commenting about inaccuracies during a previous storm.

Counties Scramble To Prepare For Earlier Elections

From the Morning Memo:

The campaign timetable has changed this year, thanks to a new election law moving the primary to June.

State legislators passed the bill as part of a package of voting reforms, but won’t have to deal with its repercussions for their own re-elections until next year. However, there are significant countywide races across the state this cycle, which has sparked a scramble at the local level.

Petitions can start to be circulated on Feb. 26, which is less than a month away. Candidates who haven’t announced their intentions yet, will have to do so soon so their respective parties can make endorsements.

In Rochester, there’s already been a flurry of activity with the committees holding designating meetings and, notably, Democratic Monroe County Clerk Adam Bello announcing he will challenge Republican County Executive Cheryl Dinolfo this fall. The district attorney’s term and county legislature seats are also up.

Anybody even thinking about running essentially has two weeks to get the initial paperwork submitted.

“It’s a little bit of a daunting process New York State has to get your name on the ballot,” Monroe County Board of Elections Democratic Deputy Commissioner Colleen Anderson said.

In Erie County, they may be even more behind. It seemed to be inevitable Republican Erie County Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw would challenge Democratic County Executive Mark Poloncarz this fall.

Then Mychajliw changed course, turning his sights to New York’s 27th Congressional District seat. Incumbent GOP Rep. Chris Collins just won re-election, but is also facing federal trial at the beginning of the year, so his future is uncertain.

A source said state Sen. Chris Jacobs, County Clerk Mickey Kearns and county legislators Ed Rath, Joe Lorigo and Lynn Dixon are all in consideration to run for county executive now. Jacobs had been the presumed frontrunner, but has moved slower than some in the party would prefer in announcing his intentions.

Meanwhile Democrats are focused on keeping control of the Erie County Legislature, as well as finding a candidate to replace outgoing Buffalo City Comptroller Mark Schroeder.

The most consistent complaint coming from party leaders: collecting petitions in February and March weather will be a lot harder – not to mention colder – for volunteers.

Pharma Company: Shingles Shots Shortage Not A Result Of Shutdown

From the Morning Memo:

U.S. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer canceled a trip to Western New York earlier this week, in which he planned to call on the Food and Drug Administration to expedite the U.S. Distribution of the shingles vaccine.

In a press release, Schumer said the FDA should consider the shortage of the vaccine SHINGRIX an emergency and step in to help remedy the problem with the manufacturer, despite the government shutdown. Ultimately, Schumer returned to Washington instead to work on a deal to help end said-shutdown.

However, the drug company, GSK, said the shortage started well before the impasse at the Capitol.

“We continue to work closely with health officials at U.S. Health and Human Services, the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and this coordination on SHINGRIX has not been affected by the current government shutdown,” a spokesperson said.

“In fact, the FDA approved one of our existing vaccine facilities in early January in France to increase SHINGRIX production as part of our ongoing strategy to invest in expanding capacity for SHINGRIX manufacturing.”

Erie County Health Commissioner Gail Burstein expressed frustration.

“The shortage is a public health challenge,” she said. “It is a problem for us because shingles now is a very easily vaccine preventable disease.”

Political football or not, she said she hopes the shutdown ends soon so the FDA, at full operation, can at least try to address the situation.

Schumer Aide: ‘I Did Not Know I Was Going To Be In A Movie’

If you’re a Netflix or Hulu subscriber, there’s a good chance you’ve watched or considered watching one of the two recent documentaries about the failed Fyre music festival.

I watched both this week and they’re a compelling look, depending on your point of view, at an overly ambitious entrepreneur or a con artist. Both movies center around Fyre Media founder and CEO Billy McFarland, who attempted to organize a luxury music festival on a remote island in the Bahamas and failed in epic fashion.

If you think you’d enjoy watching affluent millennials scramble to secure rain-soaked FEMA tents, when they were promised villas, or served cheese sandwiches instead of five-star food, either movie will do. However, it was a part I nearly missed of the Netflix version that I personally found most interesting.

Near the end of the film, McFarland, facing federal fraud charges, was out on bail and inexplicably staying at a penthouse suite in New York City.

“You should rewind that,” my wife, who was watching with me, said suddenly. “What was that guy’s title?”

For a brief and fleeting moment, we were introduced to Angelo by a videographer named Kindo who was visiting the penthouse.

“There was a guy named Angelo and I don’t know if it was Billy’s PR guy but I know that this guy was very connected,” Kindo said.

Seconds later, text on the screen identified the man as Angelo Roefaro, press secretary for Senator Chuck Schumer.

“Just try to keep me out of your stuff because my…” Roefaro said to McFarland. “I can’t say anything.”

I immediately reached out to the Senate minority leader’s office Monday evening and finally received a response Wednesday morning. There was no comment but the office gave me Roefaro’s personal email and told me I could reach out.

To his credit, Roefaro responded relatively quickly. He indicated he wasn’t going to be doing numerous individual interviews but did confirm three things.

“I was friends with McFarland. We met at a networking event and we stayed in touch,” he said. “And I did not know I was going to be in a movie.”

For any other details, he asked I refer to a New York Post story from Wednesday morning. He told the Post that McFarland was staying at a complimentary suite as a result of a movie or TV show being filmed at his apartment, and the Fyre founder had invited him over to “check it out.”

In the same article he said he was “absolutely not” doing public relations work for McFarland, which seemed to be implied in the documentary, nor was he at the penthouse in an official government capacity.

Roefaro has not been accused of any wrongdoing or connected to the Fyre Festival controversy outside of his brief appearance in the film. According to his LinkedIn account, he has worked for Schumer since March 2011.

Higgins Blames Tax And Trade Policies For WNY Layoffs

From the Morning Memo:

A factory in Cheektowaga plans to close this year, taking roughly 300 jobs with it, and Democratic Buffalo Rep. Brian Higgins believes federal tax and trade policies are to blame.

A spokesperson for Ingersoll Rand said the Western Nw York plant will stop the production line by July. The company has made air compressors at the facility it purchased in 2015. The work done in Cheektowaga will be consolidated to two other factories – one in North Carolina and the other in Italy.

Higgins, a member of the House Ways and Means Committee that oversees taxes and tariffs, said Ingersoll Rand represents the latest in a growing list of WNY manufacturing jobs recently lost.

“We are experiencing firsthand the failed promises of the GOP tax bill,” he said. “From Dresser Rand in Olean to BAK USA in Buffalo and from New Era in Derby to Globe Specialty Metals in Niagara Falls, the corporate tax cuts are not trickling down to hardworking Western New Yorkers and the tariffs are not protecting American jobs. Instead, haphazard policy that favors big business is incentivizing outsourcing and putting people out of work.”

The company does plan to retain and continue to invest in a technology center at the Cheektowaga Plant, as well as a customer center and two Trane facilities, keeping 150 other employees. Trane is one of its brands.

Ingersoll Rand said it plans to support employees losing their jobs with competitive severance packages, on-site employee assistance programs, job placement services, and the opportunity to apply for jobs at other company locations.

Meanwhile, state Legislators Monica Wallace and Tim Kennedy said they are sending a letter to the company imploring them to work with the state to find a way to keep the facility open.

Tesla Laying Off Employees Company-Wide, Up To 50 In Buffalo

In an email Friday morning, Tesla CEO Elon Musk told employees the company was cutting 7 percent of its full-time workforce.

Musk says Tesla is trying to cut costs as it increases the production of a more affordable version of the company’s Model 3 electric vehicle. While the $750 million state subsidized gigafactory in Buffalo produces solar roof technology, not cars, it appears it will still be affected.

A spokesperson for Tesla would not give a headcount of how many Buffalo employees could be laid off, but Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul says the state was told the cutback may affect 50 people.  At last notice, the company had roughly 400 employees in the facility, but there are another 400 Panasonic employees as well.

That 800 employee total counts toward the company’s agreement with the state and therefore it has already exceeded a benchmark of 500 workers in the building by April.

“They’ve also committed to us that this does not affect whatsoever their commitment to Buffalo, their desire to continue with the production line for the solar panels, so this maybe seems to be a temporary setback but we’re going to continue moving forward and the rest of the jobs will be protected,” Hochul said.

However, the company still has a way to go to reach its April 2020 goal of 1,460 total jobs in the region. Hochul said the state would continue to monitor the situation.

“We don’t control what a company like Tesla does,” she said. “We deal with the impacts but we still know that there’s a place that will have over 750 jobs which is far more than it had the decades that that property was laying fallow.”

The new Assembly member representing South Buffalo, Pat Burke, said his constituents aren’t going to be pleased by the news and he plans to relay that to the company.

“It’s the jobs here that matter,” he said. It’s the future of that plant that matters. If they’re going to take the benefits, and they’ve taken benefits from multiple government agencies, then they should follow through on their promises.”

However, Rep. Brian Higgins, D-NY, said setbacks can be expected when dealing with emerging technology, but still believes solar is the future.

“I think we have to stay the course and I think in ten years, we’ll see full employment at that plant,” he said.

The state has continued to point out, it owns the Tesla facility and has claw backs built into the agreement with the company should it not meet its employment goals.