What’s happening (and not happening) with the 2019 elections in Buffalo?

The year 2019 really seems like a strange one in local politics. The state Election Law changes, which shifted the political calendar, seem to make everything a bit off kilter.

A June primary schedule is not new in New York. Such was the case for many years until the early 1970’s, when Albany changed things to set up a September primary. That, of course, means that practically no one involved in local politics today has any history about the rhythm of what an early summer primary means.

The mysterious legislation that was approved in January, February and March of this year that jockeyed around the number of signatures needed for nominating petitions raised an interesting question, which is: how do you run an election that begins in winter – when it’s cold; when there is snow and ice on the sidewalks and driveways in vast expanses of New York State; when it gets dark about the time of the day when many of the party soldiers are used to going out to gather signatures on petitions?

It seems that something will need to be done to correct the situation on a permanent basis, rather than the patchwork fixes that were attempted this year. Heck, they might even allow Erie County (plus Nassau and New York City) in on the same adjustments concerning petition signatures that the rest of the state was given this year.

So into the vast unknown of the changed calendar entered some folks in the City of Buffalo who say they want to change more than the political calendar. They want to change the way city government is run.

An organized and to some degree coordinated effort was put together to shake up the Buffalo Common Council. The particular aim was to get some women elected to office in the city, since there have not been any non-judicial women candidates elected in many years.

In six of the Council districts, potential non-incumbent candidates emerged – in all districts except Ellicott, South and North. Democratic petitions were filed for:

  • Delaware. Joel Feroleto, the incumbent Councilmember, is running for re-election. Petitions have been filed by Melanie McMahan.
  • Fillmore. David Franczyk is the incumbent Councilmember, but he is not running. Potential candidates pending certification of their petitions include Mohammed Jahangir Alam, Raymond Brinson, Mitchell Nowakowski, Pharoah Paige, Tina Sanders, Kimberly Trent, and Gerhardt Yaskow.
  • Lovejoy. Rich Fontana is the incumbent Councilmember, but he is not running. Petitions have been filed by Bryan Bollman, Antionette Craig, and Esther Smothers.
  • Masten. Incumbent Ulysees Wingo has three potential opponents: Nathan Boyd, Veronica Golden, and Jennifer Strickland.
  • Niagara. Incumbent David Rivera is being challenged by Bernice Radle.
  • University. Incumbent Rasheed Wyatt has two potential opponents, Kathryn Franco and Derrick Lanier Moore.

All of these districts have one common thread: the opportunity to put up women candidates. Diana Cihak, an experienced political operative who runs Women Elect, has been involved in the effort.

The thing is, the process has been mismanaged. Some candidates have filed for the Council while using petition forms that are designed for candidates for the School Board. There are some differences. If past history is indicative of what might happen, errors in petition forms have been sufficient to legally knock off petitions, regardless of the number of signature filed.

And then there is the question of the signatures on petitions, even those that may have proper forms. There is anecdotal information floating around about how some of the signatures were gathered and witnessed. One story suggests that a couple of the challenging council candidates had people getting petition signatures for them in coffee shops. Word was reportedly spread on social media encouraging potential signers to stop in and sign.

And then there is the race for Buffalo City Comptroller, which in the overall scheme of things is probably more important than the Council races.

Vanessa Glushefski, the acting Comptroller since Mark Schroeder resigned in February, says she is still running for the office even after Miller-Williams was appointed Comptroller by the Common Council last week. Glushefski said in a tweet on April 16 “a majority of the Council chose politics over the best candidate for the job. As frustrating as this is, I am not giving up! Look for me on the campaign trail. #StillHere.”

Which brings up the interesting question, is she still there? Has she reverted to the Deputy Comptroller job that she held before the Council appointed Miller-Williams? Miller-Williams could fire her, I suppose. Kind of tacky, but such things have happened before.

Glushefski is a Certified Public Accountant, one of several CPAs that Schroeder brought into the office. Miller-Williams was once a police officer, and then a councilmember and county legislator. Glushefski is clearly more qualified by training and experience for the job at hand.

Then there is the matter of the independence of the comptroller from the mayor, for the benefit of the taxpayers. Miller-Williams is a strong political ally of Mayor Byron Brown.

The job at hand is a difficult one.   As Schroeder documented last year, the City of Buffalo is facing serious financial problems. The Brown administration will wave things off, but that won’t resolve the underlying issues.

The Buffalo Control Board is hibernating. Their report on the second quarter of the 2018-19 fiscal year says they “continue to recommend that revenues be closely monitored,” even as they cite similar revenue problems that Schroeder raised the red flag about months ago. Wow, how’s that for hard hitting analysis! Schroeder’s report, which matches some of the information in the Control Board report, detailed issues totaling in the tens of millions of dollars.

The City Comptroller and, to a somewhat lesser extent, the Common Council, are important players in managing the city’s finances. The media’s interest in the subject is superficial. But the problems won’t resolve themselves.

A budget commission

The previously noted issue about Buffalo’s serious financial situation brings to mind an idea. What if, in the absence of any significant attention about public finances from elected officials or the media, a citizens’ organization was formed to keep any eye on how local governments and schools raise and spend taxpayers’ money? It’s our money, after all. Shouldn’t someone be paying attention? Shouldn’t someone be holding the elected officials’ feet to the fire on such things?

There has been for many decades a Citizens Budget Commission (CBC) in New York City. The CBC’s mission is to “achieve constructive change in the finances and services of New York City and New York State government.  Our mission is rooted in serving the citizenry at large, rather than narrow special interests; preserving public resources, whether financial or human; and focusing on the well-being of future New Yorkers, the most underrepresented group in city and state government.”

“CBC is a watchdog: We scrutinize the efficiency and fiscal viability of government policies and practices.

CBC is a research organization: We study government programs and initiatives and provide evidence-based recommendations when improvements are needed.  We confine our advocacy to issues on which we have conducted research.

CBC is a nonpartisan resource: We provide information for the media, elected and government officials, civic groups, and the concerned public on City and State finances and services, and bring stakeholders together on key issues.”

A citizens’ budget commission in Buffalo/Erie County/Western New York is not the total solution to what might ail all local governments, but it certainly could help focus the important issues.

A CBC in Buffalo seems like an idea worth exploring. I’d be happy to hear your thoughts about this, either through email (kenk@politicsandstuff.com), or by simply posting a comment to this article. You can find the link to do that at the header of this page. Think about it.

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