Erie County

‘Placeholders’ – A Theme In Erie County This Election Cycle

From the Morning Memo:

In Erie County, it seems clear that the advanced timeline for the election petition process this year had an impact on how the local parties did business.

In January, the state Legislature voted to move primaries from September to June in order to coincide with the federal election schedule. That moved the dates to collect signatures up from the summer to February.

“We were forced to take our recruitment period from three months to three weeks, and in some cases, we did have to put placeholders on the ballot, and things, by the end of this week, will be shaking out with the actual candidates coming forward,” said Erie County Republican Committee Chairman Nick Langworthy.

The Board of Elections has seen a slew of declinations this week. Assuming the petitions for those candidates are authorized as sufficient, committees to fill vacancies will be able to substitute new candidates by the end of the week.

In some cases, the candidates who declined were not intentional placeholders. Democrats had a number of high-profile declinations – including the chairman of the Erie County Legislature, Peter Savage.

Democratic Party Chairman Jeremy Zellner said the party fully expected Savage to run until late last week. The same was the case with several other races.

However Zellner said the party did put a placeholder of sorts in one of its Legislature districts as a byproduct of the accelerated schedule.

“We didn’t have a candidate so one of our committee members from the Town of Concord. Jerome Janik said he would make the run if we couldn’t find anyone else to because he felt as though we shouldn’t let the seat go uncontested,” he said.

Zellner said a candidate did come forward, and Janik declined, to clear the path for the new candidate. Langworthy believes that given the challenges his committee faced, he did a good job making sure the GOP had candidates for the 150+ offices on ballots this year. But there is a downside to the placeholder method.

“I’d rather have the candidate out there, carrying their own petition, asking supporters for a signature,” Langworthy said. “In this case, we went into survival mode.”

The GOP chair, who has been traveling New York and is believed to be eyeing a potential run for state GOP chair, said that he has heard from members of both parties across upstate who struggled with the new schedule this year. He believes the burden did not have to be thrust upon committees and boards of election all at once.

No Decision On Paper Bag Fee Yet For Erie County

New York State’s new grocery bag regulations not only ban single-use plastic bags but also allow counties to opt into a five cent fee on paper bags.

If counties do take part in the program, two cents will be returned to them to purchase reusable bags for local shoppers. The other three cents of the fee will go toward a state environmental fund.

“What the fee is to do is to dissuade people from actually using paper,” Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz, D, said. “There are other food grocery stores that already prohibit it, plastic bags and they charge a nickel or a dime for paper bags.”

Poloncarz is a proponent of the plastic bag ban and, in fact, proposed similar legislation in Erie County several years ago. He said he’s also been on record supporting policy like the plastic bag fee, especially with money going toward reusable bags.

However, the county executive will not say definitively whether the county will opt in.

“I’d consider it, I just want to take a look and see what the language of the law is,” he said.

Poloncarz said he’s not sure if its a decision he can make unilaterally or if the County Legislature needs to approve the paper bag fee. If it’s the latter, he believes it’s premature to comment.

The minority caucus in the Legislature has already introduced a resolution against the “opt in” provision.

“This tax would hurt the many people of Erie County who are already working hard to make ends meet. Instead of imposing an additional tax for the use of paper bags, we should encourage voluntary participation in the use of re-usable bags and recycling efforts,” said Legislator Lynne Dixon, I, who is running against Poloncarz for county executive.

Minority Leader Joe Lorigo said the decision is the Legislature’s to make and he will be voting no. He called it a “money-grabbing tax attempt.”

Monroe County Executive Cheryl Dinolfo, R, has already promised Monroe County will not participate.

Erie County Executive, GOP Spar Over Handicapped Parking Incident

The Erie County Republican Committee is criticizing County Executive Mark Poloncarz after his detail apparently parked in handicap spots at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery prior to his Wednesday State of the County address.

Poloncarz acknowledged and apologized for the situation on Twitter after someone wrote that a handicapped woman with Alzheimer’s Disease was not able to park.

However, the GOP found the similarities between this incident and another with then-County Executive Chris Collins eight years ago.

Poloncarz’s then-campaign spokesperson, Peter Anderson, admonished Collins for parking in a handicapped spot at a local high school during a parade in Akron. In fact the party, said it was so similar, it simply updated the old press release.

“In keeping with his record of arrogance and disregard for the rules, Mark Poloncarz Chris Collins presumably reached a new low in conduct recently when he parked his car in a handicapped parking spot at the Albright Knox Art Gallery during operational hours a local high school prior to a speech and political fundraiser he was hosting summer parade.”

Anderson, now a spokesperson for the administration said the “non-issue” was being deliberately cooked up by people who deliberately misrepresent the truth. He pointed out Poloncarz apologized while he did not believe Collins ever did.

Ultimately, he said there’s no comparison between the two situations though.

“As you’ll recall, Collins drove his own vehicle to a parade in Akron, and then deliberately parked his vehicle in a clearly-marked handicapped spot so he could force his way to the front of a parade; he remained parked in that handicapped spot for the duration of the parade as well,” Anderson said. “On Tuesday, the County Executive’s detail inadvertently and briefly parked in front of a sidewalk ramp at the AKAG (NOT a clearly marked handicapped spot) and moved the vehicle immediately upon being told of the issue.”

Poloncarz is running for county executive again this year. His Republican-endorsed opponent is Erie County Legislator Lynn Dixon who is a registered member of the Independence Party.

Erie County Executive Not In Favor Of Making Tax Cap Permanent

When the governor’s office sent out a press release yesterday with quotes from county executives across New York in favor of his plan to make the state’s tax cap permanent, Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz, D, was conspicuously missing.

Today, Poloncarz said he is, in fact, not in favor of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposal. The county executive is typically a Cuomo ally and was appearing at an announcement with him in Buffalo.

“We don’t have to agree on everything and I think that’s an example where I would like to see it being a strict two percent but that’s not exactly what it is today and not what the law would be in the future,” he said.

Poloncarz said the problem is the so-called two percent tax cap on property tax levy growth for local governments is not strictly a two percent cap, which he would support. Instead it is either two percent or the Consumer Price Index, whichever is lower.

“There have been years in which it has not been two percent. It’s been the CPI which has been .5 and .6. If it was two percent I’d 100 percent support it but the CPI sometimes is a problem. We have increasing costs on an average basis of two to three percent,” Poloncarz said. “So to go and say I’m going to reduce my revenue below what my increasing costs are by an arbitrary number is a problem.”

Regardless, he said the county has regularly stayed under the cap. However, he said the majority of property taxes comes from school and special districts which often vote to override the cap.

He is pushing those districts to share more services.

Erie Co Legislature Reappoints Embattled Water Board Commissioner

From The Morning Memo:

The chairman of the Erie County Water Authority board has been appointed to another three-year term.

The move represents a reversal for the Erie County Legislature, which called for Jerome Schad’s resignation just last summer. That resolution, passed in June by a 6-5 vote, was in response to a scathing state Authorities Budget Office report that criticized the ECWA for a lack of transparency and recommended the removal of all commissioners who served in 2016 and 2017.

Schad was the only commissioner still serving from that time period.

However, several things have changed over the last eight months. Republican Legislator Kevin Hardwick, who voted in favor of the resolution last summer, has since decided to caucus with Democrats in the Legislature. This time around, he cast the swing vote for the chairman’s reappointment.

The water authority, meanwhile, has taken steps to correct the criticisms from the ABO report, including more timely public access to its agenda. Schad has promised more changes as well.

Legislature Chairman Peter Savage said he’s been satisfied by these steps.

“So, we’re talking about commissioners,” he said. “Their chief responsibility is to manage the policies and with this administration with Mr. Carney and Mr. Schad, now have an Open Meeting Law policy.”

However, the Buffalo Niagara Coalition for Open Government actually criticized the process for the commissioner’s reappointment, which drew only one other applicant. It called for an extension so the opening could be publicized more – something the Legislature’s minority caucus supported.

But the proposal for a 45-day postponement failed.

We talk a lot in the body about reforms and changing the culture over there, but when we have the opportunity to take substance over action, we fail. I’m disappointed. I was hopeful we could get some additional support to actually have some reforms,” Minority Leader Joe Lorigo said.

The minority caucus also proposed to eliminate the commissioner’s $22,500 annual stipend, but that, too, was voted down.

EC Dem Chair Believes Clinton Still Has A ‘Huge Role’ To Play In 2020

From the Morning Memo:

The Erie County Democratic Party has a long history of supporting the Clinton family.

The committee was one of the first political organizations in the country to endorse Hillary Clinton for president in 2016. The prevailing wisdom among party members was that Clinton would not make another run at the nation’s top office this year, although she didn’t make it official until this week.

Party Chairman Jeremy Zellner hadn’t ruled out another endorsement before Clinton officially uttered the words “I’m not running” during an interview with News 12, a cable station in her home state of New York.

“I can’t speak for the party,” he said. “I know that I wanted to talk about it if she was interested. I’m a big supporter of hers and the president’s (Bill Clinton). So I was looking for that conversation, if there was one to be had.”

However, Zellner is not taking Clinton’s decision not to run as a sign she’s stepping away from the Democratic spotlight. He pointed out that she said she doesn’t plan on going away, which he took to mean that she intends to play a part in the national discussion in the coming election cycle.

“I think that she’s going to have a huge role to play going forward in the state and also nationally,” he said. “I think you’ve seen that with Governor Cuomo having her at a few events and some of our other legislative leaders. I think that she’s going to have a very big impact in 2020.”

Zellner has said he wants to speak with New York party leaders, including Clinton, before deciding who in the crowded field of would-be Democratic candidates to support to take on President Donald Trump.

Fmr. Erie County Social Services Commissioner Convicted of Raping County Employee

The former commissioner of Erie County’s Department of Social Services has been convicted of raping another county employee.

A jury in Albany convicted Al Dirschberger on one count of third degree felony rape and one count of third degree felony committing a criminal sexual act. The trial, including jury selection lasted roughly five days with deliberation beginning Friday morning.

The Albany County District Attorney’s office said Dirschberger engaged in sexual intercourse and oral sex with a woman who was known to him without consent. It happened in a hotel in Albany while the two were attending a conference in early December 2017.

“This victim was forced in to sexual contact by a person with power over her, despite repeatedly telling him “No” and being too intoxicated to legally consent. We are proud to deliver justice to her and to those who have supported and believed her,” DA David Soares said.

Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz, D, said he learned of the serious allegations about his commissioner and a female subordinate less than a month after it happened and asked Dirschberger to tender his resignation.

“Today’s verdict confirms my administration took the correct course of action in performing an immediate investigation of the incident upon learning of it and asking for the defendant’s resignation after confirming that he had violated numerous Erie County policies,” he said. “Independent counsel retained by the Legislature also confirmed that my administration acted quickly and appropriately in this case and cooperated fully with investigators and law enforcement as the case moved forward.  Additionally, it should be noted that Erie County declined to provide a defense or indemnity for the defendant upon learning of these charges as his actions did not fall within the scope of his public employment or duties. I do not tolerate any form of sexual misconduct, especially the abhorrent conduct in this case, and my thoughts are with the victim at this time.”

Poloncarz’s opponent for county executive and current County Legislator Lynne Dixon, I, also released a statement.

“This was a tragic event no matter the outcome of the trial of Al Dirschberger, but I am satisfied to see that a panel of his peers listened to the evidence and made a determination that he is guilty and should be punished for his actions. Rape by its nature is intentionally designed to produce psychological trauma. It will forever be with the victim and those close to her,” Dixon said. “My thoughts are with the victim and her family. I applaud the bravery and courage they have shown throughout this process. Erie County has an obligation to protect our employees, and we failed this young woman.”

Dirschberger was remanded to jail and faces up to four years in state prison for each count. His sentencing is April 12.

Erie County Dems Will Take Time On 2020 Prez Endorsement

From the Morning Memo:

Erie County Democratic Committee Chairman Jeremy Zellner attended the high-profile McIntyre-Shaheen 100 Club Dinner late last week.

The New Hampshire fundraiser, in its 60th year, has a reputation for bringing in major national party figures, including presidential candidates. This year was no different, as Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, an announced 2020 Democratic contender, gave the keynote speech in her neighboring state, which just so happens to host the country’s first presidential primary.

Zellner admitted he has never been a major Warren backer, but said he found the senator to be very impressive. However, he also made a point to mention one of her main competitors.

The ECDC chair said he spoke with top staff for California Sen. Kamala Harris, another announced 2020 candidate, whose campaign already has gained significant momentum. I asked Zellner if he plans to endorse Harris, about whom he has tweeted several times since she entered the fray.

“Right now, it’s very early and what I want to do is I want to hear from our governor, I want to hear from our incoming state chair and I want to hear from Secretary (Hillary) Clinton,” Zellner said.

“She’s a fellow New Yorker. She’s someone who carried the torch for us last time and I’d like to hear her thoughts on it. So I’m not making any decisions or any recommendations or any endorsements yet.”

Clinton reportedly has been meeting with Democratic 2020 hopefuls, and though she doesn’t plan on endorsing a favorite, has plenty of advice for those seeking to follow in her 2016 footsteps. Already, her primary opponent from that year, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, has announced he’s going to take another shot at the White House.

There has been speculation that Clinton herself might make a third White House run, but that doesn’t seem likely.

This wait-and-see mode is a different tactic for Zellner and the EC Dems than the last presidential election, when they were among the first in the nation to endorse Clinton, the state’s former junior senator.

Western New York has long been known as “Clinton Country,” and Zellner said he doesn’t know this year’s crop of candidates – at least those who have announced to date – as well.

“It’s just a different scenario where we had known that this was coming with her,” the chairman said. “We had been in touch for a long time and we had a very strong relationship there.”

That’s an interesting statement, given the fact that Clinton’s replacement in the U.S. Senate, Kirsten Gillibrand, is among the 2020 Democratic hopefuls.

Zellner actually attended the 100 Club Dinner in 2016 as a member of Clinton’s finance committee.

Erie County Water Authority Director Resigning Less Than Two Weeks After Taking Post

The Erie County Water Authority confirmed Wednesday, new Executive Director John Mye III is resigning effective Friday.

Mye officially began working for the authority less than two weeks ago on February 4. ECWA said the reason for the resignation was personal and could not give any further information because of HIPAA laws.

“After my very brief time at the ECWA discovering the full magnitude of the responsibilities of the position, and after close consultation with my family, I have determined that due to this personal matter it is in the best interests of myself and the ECWA to resign,” Mye said in a statement. “The ECWA and its ratepayers deserve to have an executive director that can fully meet the rigorous daily demands of leading the largest public water utility in the region.”

A spokesperson said it will begin a search immediately to replace the executive director within 60 days. The authority has long been known as a hotbed for political patronage, but the selection of Mye was viewed as a change in direction.

Much was made of the fact the professional engineer and financial executive did not have a history of political involvement or campaign contributions. His hire came following a tumultuous several months for ECWA.

“In the short time I was at the ECWA, I came away very impressed with its operations,” Mye said. “The organization is well managed, and I am confident that the leadership at ECWA will select a highly qualified individual that will continue to lead the organization in a positive direction.”

In June 2018, the authority fired previous Executive Director Earl Jann. That move came days after the New York State Authorities Budget Office issued a scathing report recommending all water authority commissioners who served between 2016 and 2017 be replaced due to lack of transparency.

The report was particularly critical of the board for approving a guaranteed severance payout of $300,000 to $400,000 if Jann were forced out of his position for political reasons before his contract expired in 2020. The practice is known as a “golden parachute.”

Members of the Erie County Legislature also passed a resolution over the summer calling for the resignation of Authority Board of Commissioners Chair Jerry Schad, but he has stayed on. Schad is expected to discuss Mye’s resignation later today.

State Senator Jacobs Will Not Run For Erie County Executive

State Senator Chris Jacobs, R-Buffalo, confirmed Tuesday he will not run for Erie County Executive.

Many Republicans in Western New York believed Jacobs would be the front runner to challenge incumbent Democrat Mark Poloncarz. The legislator contemplated his options for several weeks but ultimately said the decision was not too difficult to make.

“We’re just celebrating the one month birthday of my new daughter Anna and really decided it’s just not the right time for myself and my family,” he said.

Jacobs said his position in the state Senate didn’t really factor into the choice. He just began his second term in the 60th district but now is in the minority conference.

If anything, he said that shift is a reason to return to Albany. The lawmaker pointed out he’s already run two countywide campaigns and it’s not easy.

“I know it’s a time consuming and all-consuming task and right now I just didn’t think it was the right time,” he said. “So I’m very much enjoying my role as senator representing the 60th district and I also think it’s a very important time to be up here to make sure Western New York’s voice is heard.”

Jacobs has developed a number of buildings in the Buffalo-area but he said impending limits on outside income in the Legislature were not a factor either. He said it is his understanding, with “soft income,” he will not be impacted by the new rules.

Erie County Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw was once considered the defacto candidate to challenge Poloncarz. However, after Republican Rep. Chris Collins was indicted on federal insider trading charges, Mychajliw appeared to severe from the local party a bit. He now appears to have turned his attention to the 27th Congressional District, whenever the incumbent’s tenure is up.

Erie County GOP Chairman Nick Langworthy said the candidates currently in consideration for county executive are County Legislators Lynne Dixon, Joe Lorigo, and Ed Rath, as well as County Clerk Mickey Kearns. He said there are no “rankings” as to which candidate might be preferred.

Republican analyst Vic Martucci said any of the four would be good choices his gut feeling is Dixon will be the favorite.

“I would think that the Republican party will want to try and run a female candidate if they can,” Martucci said. “Again, just looking at the political landscape, Republicans lost a lot of races last year because they couldn’t appeal to middle class suburban women and that’s going to be a key voting block in this county executive’s race.”

Of the four candidates in consideration, only Rath is a registered Republican. Kearns is a Democrat, Lorigo a Conservative, and Dixon is registered to the Independence Party.

Martucci said the GOP has always needed candidates that can appeal to more than just party members because there is a heavy Democratic enrollment edge in Erie County. He said he believes voters care less about affiliation than they have in the past and there’s not necessarily a problem recruiting candidates.

He said regardless of who Reopublicans choose, the incumbent, Poloncarz, is formidable and will be difficult to beat.