Outrages and insights
Buffalo’s elected leadership is a sorry lot
Photo by J.P. Thimot
Mayor Byron Brown is the epitome of an empty suit.
After getting rid of Carl Paladino, the School Board hasn’t done anything of late—unless you count kowtowing to the Buffalo Teachers Federation as an accomplishment.
Then there’s the Common Council: a mediocre bunch as legislative bodies go.
The quality of the Council has ebbed and flowed over the three decades I’ve covered government in this town, but it’s never been as bad as the current edition. It has failed to meet its basic obligations of legislating and acting as a check on mayoral power. Members show little initiative in advancing significant legislation and do little more than rubber stamp, regardless of what the mayor puts in front of them.
This is all the more problematic given the mayor’s lack of vision and initiative. There’s a leadership void in City Hall, and no one on the Council is even attempting to fill it. Or, as Alan Oberst wrote this summer in Buffalo Rising: “There is too much dead wood, too many seat moisteners.”
Even Jeremy Zellner, chairman of the Erie County Democratic Party, conceded back in 2013 that the Council could use an upgrade, when he told me, “There certainly needs to be a better quality of candidates as far as I’m concerned.”
Now, mind you, the Council has never been a team of all stars. But, until recent years, it had a competent core that made up for the seatwarmers. Lawmakers like Eugene Fahey, David Rutecki, James Pitts, and Brian Higgins did their jobs well and, to use the sports adage, made others around them better. They make today’s Council members look like dwarfs. The Reverend Darius Pridgen is the best of the current bunch, which isn’t saying much. He occasionally takes the initiative, but is often concerned with preening for the cameras. The Council under his leadership has lost any semblance of independence.
I find especially troubling the indifference the mayor and Council have shown toward the city’s black and Latino community. The conduct of the police department is perhaps the most glaring example. The Council’s Police Oversight Committee meets only a couple of times a year, and when it does, members refuse to tackle pressing issues with any vigor. Consider that Ulysees Wingo, who represents the inner-city Masten District, once stood on the Council floor with his fist clenched overhead to protest the shooting of black men by police around the country. But when men of color started dying here during encounters with police, Wingo defended the cops.
Or take Rasheed Wyatt, whose University District was targeted by the police department’s Strike Force for traffic stops. Wyatt called for a reinstatement of the unit after it was disbanded in the face of reports about abusive tactics.
The Council’s blind eye doesn’t stop with abusive policing practices. There’s the lead poisoning of inner-city children. The Council waited—and waited—for the mayor to propose legislation and failed to follow up to see if the half-measures they passed were being effectively enacted. They weren’t.
The Brown administration has not been enforcing the city’s fair housing law, and reports documenting the problem have been greeted with yawns by the Council.
Economic development efforts—the Buffalo Billion and otherwise—have largely bypassed the inner city, and City Hall can’t even be bothered to use a law it has on the books that encourages the hiring of city residents on public works projects.
The Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority has been a mess for, well, forever, and the current Council lineup seems more interested in deflecting blame without pointing fingers at the guy who appoints a majority of the BMHA board and has his fingerprints all over the hiring. That’s the mayor, of course.
The Council acts as though it’s scared stiff of Brown, for reasons I can’t fathom. I could understand it, to a degree, when Steve Casey, a nasty hatchetman, served as deputy mayor. But Brown enjoys support that is a mile wide and an inch deep, as evidenced by his shrinking vote totals in the Democratic primary, which is tantamount to the general election because registered Democrats vastly outnumber Republicans in the city. Brown garnered some 14,000 votes in the 2017 primary, a little more than half of his total eight years earlier.
There is a bit of good news. All nine Council members are up for re-election in 2019. If there’s ever a group that deserves to be challenged, it’s this crew, to a man—and I mean “man,” as the ranks of city elected officials do not include a single woman. That alone would be a good starting point for change.
It would also be nice if the challengers who step forward are rooted in the community, as opposed to the Democratic Party, which is responsible for the second-rate slate of candidates that’s been presented to the electorate in recent years. There’s been a surge of activism around the city this past decade, so there is talent to be had. I have my reservations, however, as some of these young turks work for community organizations that seem more interested in keeping the flow of money coming from the mayor and governor than in challenging the status quo.
Buffalo needs real change, and that requires independent elected leaders. Who is going to answer the call?
Jim Heaney is editor of Investigative Post, a nonprofit investigative reporting center based in Buffalo.