Fierce Hamister Fight Doomed Fruscione
By Tony Farina
No matter what people thought from time to time depending on the issue, Sam Fruscione, Glenn Choolokian, and Bob Anderson, the current council majority in Niagara Falls, certainly have flexed their political muscles over the last two years to try and rein in what they saw as the big-spending ways of Mayor Paul Dyster.
Perhaps their greatest gift to their constituents was their undoing of Dyster’s 8.3 percent tax increase that was part of his "disaster"budget last December in the midst of the gaming war between the state and the Seneca Nation.
While they were able to cut enough spending in the Dyster budget to nix the tax hike and save 20 city jobs and services, they ran into fierce opposition when they voted against spending $30,000 in bed tax money to support the Niagara Arts and Cultural Center (NACC), saying it was time for groups like the NACC to pay their own way and not rely on government.
There was more, but the fiercest clash between the majority and Dyster came over the proposed $25 million Hamister hotel project at 310 Rainbow Blvd. that had become larger than life in recent weeks, even attracting the governor’s attention the weekend before the primary.
Fruscione and the majority had raised questions about the deal, and wanted some answers before agreeing to sell the property for development to the Hamister Group at the bargain price of $100,000. You would have thought they had committed a crime, such was the reaction.
In the end, the bitter public squabble carried over into the Democratic council primary and two-term councilman Fruscione ran fourth in the race for three slots in the November election, leaving him the odd man out with nothing but two minor party lines left to run on in November.
The winners were newcomer Andrew Touma with 2,171 votes and incumbents Charles Walker with 1,994 votes and Kristen Grandinetti with 1,721 votes. Fruscione, the fiery former council chairman who cast himself as a man of the people, came in a distant fourth with 1,336 votes, likely ending his service as a city lawmaker, a defeat that he took quite hard.
The three Democratic primary winners certainly loom as heavy favorites for victory in November against their three Republican opponents given the fact that of the 26,000 registered voters in Niagara Falls, 16,000 of them are Democrats.
If the three primary winners hold service in the November vote, Dyster will pretty much have it all his way come January when it comes to pushing his progressive agenda for the city. As of this writing, the Hamister deal is pretty much done as Councilman Bob Anderson has received enough assurances from Dyster and USA Niagara to vote for the deal, providing the crucial third vote. Choolokian and Fruscione remain opposed.
While Fruscione may have angered some voters with his hard line stance on the Hamister project and other decisions made by the majority during his run, it should be noted that it is the responsibility of lawmakers to raise questions about projects that are critical to the city’s future, and that was the case with the Hamister proposal.
Somehow, in the shape of coverage and in the minds of many voters, it seemed to come down to a right verses wrong decision, and that’s too bad. Hamister’s failed bid to buy the bankrupt Buffalo Sabres back in 2002 when he couldn’t raise enough public money to support his bid should have been a red flag accepted by all sides and made legitimate the assurances lawmakers were seeking about the deal.
But maybe they went about it all wrong, maybe they didn’t sell their concerns properly, or maybe they were just overmatched by the machine of public officials and media that saw the project as do-or-die for Niagara Falls. Even Gov. Cuomo urged Hamister to stay strong the Friday before the primary and not withdraw his bid as he had threatened after a nasty campaign flier called him a "con"man. The popular Cuomo’s support certainly had to carry some weight with primary voters, not to mention Fruscione’s harsh exchanges with television reporters that were played up in the run-up to the vote.
The primary results prompted one of the Republicans who will be running in November to weigh in on the Hamister deal, and Vincent Sandonato did just that in a news release, saying the time had come for action on the project, notwithstanding the council’s proper oversight role.
Sandonato said the council had been "prudent"to ask questions, but added he feels the answers had been sufficient and it was time to move forward. Sandonato, along with Republicans Robert Elder and Russell Vesci will now face off against the Democratic primary winners in the Nov. 5 election.
It will be interesting to see if any of the Republicans, including Sandonato, are able to make any inroads in a Democratic city like Niagara Falls, most likely arguing that a rubber stamp council for the mayor is not in the best interests of the taxpayers. But the primary winners have momentum on their side and a big edge in the numbers. It will be tough for the Republicans to be heard but it sounds like Sandonato, a former county lawmaker, is ready to make his case. We’ll see if the others follow through and make a contest of it.
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SEP 10, 2013