Touma Tackles Issues Shows Independent Streak
By Frank Parlato
Andrew Touma is a newcomer to the political scene. He campaigned promising he would be independent yet, at the same time, one of a trio of Mayor Paul Dyster loyalists that would comprise a new council majority.
Along with Touma there was Kristen Grandinetti and Charles Walker who, in the past, have shown little inclination to vote independent of the mayor's wishes.
Touma's divided loyalties were questioned before and after he defeated former two-term City Council chairman, Sam Fruscione, in last September's primary election.
Touma's approach was politically astute, if nothing else, since some of the votes he got were certainly because he was perceived as a supporter, if not a rubber stamp for Dyster. Others were had because some saw Touma as a fresh face and took him at his word that he would be independent. Still others must have voted for him because he offered a middle ground. Even if Touma wasn't completely independent, anyone was better than the stooge Fruscione had suddenly become.
A graduate of Niagara Catholic High School and Niagara University, Touma spent most of his career as a public school teacher and guidance counselor. He and his wife, Jocelyn, have four boys - Alex, Ben, John and Michael - and a baby girl on the way. Touma is also lay president of the St. John De LaSalle Parish of the Catholic Church.
"During the campaign, I was focused on winning the race," Touma told the Reporter. "Once I won, I started getting immersed in what City Hall is about. Once you get involved, you realize the depth of it."
Asked about Dyster's controversial train station project and the city's relationship with Wendel Engineering, Touma replied that he has concerns.
"We're into the last stage of the project, and I certainly am for the train project," he said. "But there are a lot of variables I'm worried about. I'm worried about (low) ridership. I'm worried about the cost of overseeing this project, going forward, and I'm concerned with the fact that we have to maintain this facility."
Touma also said delays and increased costs associated with the project must be laid at Wendel's doorstep.
"I've already taken on Wendel my first month on the job," said Touma. "Although Wendel will say they have the best interests at heart for the city, I'm concerned that maybe folks haven't taken a good enough look at how this project is coming along, how many delays there have been."
The Reporter asked him if the public is entitled to know what the train station will cost before the city jumps into what is likely to be a $30-35 million dollar project dependant on $8-10 million of city money. Touma replied, "Well, obviously the numbers should be up front and people should know what the numbers look like." (Senior planner Tom DeSantis admitted he doesn't know the annual cost, but has "faith" that the train station will work.)
We also asked Touma about issues, such as the scaling down of the project; the need to bid and rebid until the right politically-connected contractor wins the bid; the fact that the renderings Wendel made public are a far cry from what will be built; and whether the cost and effect of the train station will be much like the subway in downtown Buffalo (hardly used and super expensive). To these questions, he replied, "let's hope it doesn't come to that. These are things I need to study and ponder myself and talk to people like yourself that have done the research. . . I think some of the ridership numbers are 'anticipated,' and you can't go by present ridership at this point, because ridership from Niagara Falls to Buffalo isn't very high... But I think potential ridership could be very good. I also think for a city that attracts eight million tourists a year, you're hoping that you give them another means to come into the city, obviously, and you have a train station that is more of a world class facility than what you have now."
Upon being asked whether he agreed that the new train station, being designed to handle only 300 riders per day, will be empty most of the time, Touma said he did agree, but added, "You're making an impression when they get off the train. Well, when they go down Main Street, they've lost that impression, but we'll see how it shakes out in the end. But, yes, the train station can only bring in so many a day."
"Would it be fair to say you will bust up close consulting relationships in the Dyster administration? we asked.
"I don't know if 'bust' is the right word," Touma said. "My job is to watch the dollars. I can't be bought and I'm not going to get too close to folks where they can wine and dine you to look the other way. It's just not my style. One of the things I've learned in my brief, five weeks in office is that you watch relationships. And one of the things that concerns me is that you don't want to get too close to a consultant. My eyes are opened. I know how things work. Deals are made… But I'm not working for the city. I'm a councilman who was asked to watch out for the taxpayers."
"I have reservations with a lot of things," Touma continued. "When Wendel revisited that last contract with the contractors, [costing the city an extra $330,000 because of Wendel's errors] I asked [Wendel] who wrote the [faulty] RFP, and they answered that they wrote the RFP, and I asked them, "shouldn't you be much more careful with how you constructed the RFP to make sure there wasn't an issue with the contractors coming in overbid?" Then I asked if they had conversations with the mayor with regards to offset some of those [extra] fees? Sue Sherwood from Wendel assured me that those conversations were happening."
"But isn't that a little like asking the barber if we need a haircut?" we asked. "Do you think you should ask the mayor - and perhaps press the point that we should back charge Wendel for their mistakes?"
"Absolutely," replied Touma. "That's why I went public with it. As far as a back charge to Wendel, I am following up it. I have a meeting with Mayor on this."
Touma, who received the highest number of votes in the November election, said he was elected to represent all the people of Niagara Falls, not just those who voted for him.
"Case in point" he said. "The (frozen) water pipes on 72nd street. I got a call from a gentleman on 72ndstreet, and was told things were getting out of hand. I went there on a Saturday morning. Neighbors started coming out of the woodwork, out of their homes. I don't know if they voted for me or not. It didn't matter. The race is over. One woman was crying in the street. She had four children and no water, didn't know what to do, what she was going to do next."
Along with the Mayor and Walker, Touma helped circumvent an emergency by securing a contractor to unfreeze the lines with electric current and restore water service.
"It was heartwarming to take decisive action to help them, which we did," said Touma.
Another water-related project Touma is concerned about is the potential processing of wastewater from fracking at the Niagara Falls Water Board's treatment plant (something the mayor and some of the council seem to support).
The former City Council majority, led by Glenn Choolokian, with Fruscione and Robert Anderson, passed a resolution in 2012 banning the practice. With Fruscione gone, it was suspected Touma might rubber stamp a Dyster plan to get frack water treated here.
"I'm against it," said Touma. "There are definitely opportunities for revenue sources down the road in a lot of ways and people talk about this as a great opportunity for revenue sources. But I just think there are too many unknowns to take a chance on it. I'm against fracking. I will not vote to repeal [the old council majority's] ban [on treating fracking waste water in the city]."
Touma's positions on the train station, the comfortable relationships between some officials in the city and its well paid consultants, and the treating of wastewater generated by fracking, do not entirely reflect those of Mayor Dyster.
Touma appears to be evaluating issues independently, without taking orders from Dyster.
Time will tell how far this is true.
But at five weeks and counting, some early signs augur well.
|Niagara Falls Reporter - Publisher Frank Parlato Jr.||www.niagarafallsreporter.com||
Feb 18, 2014