Having held the position for barely a year, Jeanne Leccese abruptly and unexpectedly resigned as Executive Director of the Niagara River Greenway last month, leaving unanswered questions. Namely, why did she leave the high-paying, prestigious position at the public benefit corporation for a staff job at a lowly non-profit?
But for an abbreviated, three paragraph notice buried at the bottom of page B3 in the Buffalo News on November 25, it might have escaped the public’s attention entirely, since no other news media outlet in Western New York appears to have reported it. That’s odd, considering that the Niagara River Greenway annually doles out $9 million a year for high profile projects across Western New York, impacting communities from Buffalo to Youngstown.
It’s also strange that the News apparently deleted the short article about Ms. Leccese’s resignation from its website shortly after posting it. We know this because another website, Pressreader.com, which collects and reposts content from newspapers across the country, presently carries the Buffalo News piece. However, it no longer appears on Buffalonews.com.
In stark contrast, at the top of page B3 is a huge, page-wide, 5-column article headlined “3 Projects on Niagara River considered for Greenway funds” by the News’ Nancy Fischer, dwarfing the terse statement about the Leccese resignation at the bottom of the page.
This seemingly unbalanced treatment by the News is understandable, since the city of Buffalo gets a dedicated $2 of the $9 million Greenway pot every year, plus what they can get from the $3 million allotment for communities (the remaining $4 goes to State Parks and something called the “Ecological Standing Committee”).
Given that the city of Buffalo is located 30 miles away from NYPA’s Niagara Power Project, which funds the Greenway pursuant to a 2007 relicensing agreement, and therefore suffers no ill environmental impacts from the hydropower plant whatsoever, it makes perfect sense that Buffalo’s hometown newspaper would emphasize the good of Greenway over the bad.
Still, if it wasn’t for the diligence of the News, we wouldn’t have any idea that Ms. Leccese had resigned until many months from now. That’s because the public and the news media long ago stopped attending Greenway Commission meetings, since they’re a complete waste of time. The Greenway Commission has never taken public input seriously when it comes to determining the “consistency” of proposals with respect to its mission to construct a “lake to lake” trail system, and in any event, it doesn’t matter, since its approvals over the years can, and have been, reversed by the supposedly subordinate Host Communities Standing Committee, whose meetings are even more ignored than those of the Commission itself.
The Niagara River Greenway hasn’t held a Citizens Advisory Committee meeting in years. For all anyone knows, it doesn’t even exist anymore, except on paper, in the Greenway plan that mandates it meet on a regular basis.
In digging into the circumstances of Ms. Leccese’s separation, we made some other intriguing discoveries.
For example, according to her LinkedIn profile, Ms. Leccese followed a normal career path. Her previous three jobs since 2007 had been at the University at Buffalo, the Tompkins County Planning Department, and as something called the “Coordinator of Creating Healthy Places” for liberal bastion Tompkins County, home of Cornell University. She spent an average of three years at each job. So to have left the Greenway directorship after only one year is starkly inconsistent with her past employment history.
There have only been two Executive Directors since the 2007 inception of the Niagara River Greenway, the other being Robin “Rob” Belue, formerly a Grand Island resident and now a real estate agent in Florida, who was tapped to head the Greenway because of his vast experience in the environmental field, having managed the Fashion Outlet Mall for Benderson Development for a couple of years.
On his LinkedIn webpage, in what appears to be a blatant act of resume’ fudging, Mr. Belue lists “2003 – Mar 2015,” for his dates of employment as Greenway Executive Director, with an “Employment Duration” of “12 yrs.” Actually, he wasn’t named to the position until April of 2007 – the Greenway as a functional entity didn’t even confer its first grant until the year after that.
Therefore, Mr. Belue’s LinkedIn page should cite 2007 as his starting date, and a tenure of eight years, if it is to be honest and truthful.
What’s really shocking, however, is Mr. Belue’s salary history as Executive Director of the Niagara River Greenway, as revealed at the website SeeThroughNY.com, which is maintained by The Empire Center for Public Policy, a think tank based in Albany.
Initially hired at a salary of $65,000 in mid-2007, he was given a whopping 21% raise for 2008, his annual salary boosted to $82,400.
It got even better for him after that, as the raises kept coming, until he was at $91,240 for 2014, and $93,065 for 2015. Nice work if you can get it.
What’s really notable, however, is that according to the SeeThroughNY site, Mr. Belue was paid $62,140 for the three months he worked in 2015 prior to resigning. By April of 2015, State Parks staffer Angela Berti had assumed his duties. Why was Mr. Belue paid more than half his annual salary of $93,065 for only three months of work? Was it severance pay, or a bonus for a job well done?
As we’ve reported in the past, Angela Berti of State Parks picked up the slack, performing the sparse duties of the Greenway Executive Director starting from Mr. Belue’s departure in March, 2015 to Ms. Leccese’s hiring almost two years later. Ms. Berti managed to not only execute her duties as a top staffer at one of the busiest parks in the world, Niagara Falls State Park, but also sent out the occasional press release and newsletter that had previously kept Mr. Belue busy for years. Ms. Berti is again stepping in, now that Ms. Leccese has bid adieu.
Also, and as we never tire of pointing out, the Greenway is a terrible disappointment, funding local politicians pet projects including Mayor Dyster’s Boundary Waters sculpture, theater marquees in North Tonawanda and Lockport, playgrounds in the Falls, a dog park in Lewiston, harbor dredging in Wilson, a parking lot in Sanborn, municipal park upgrades in Lockport and Newfane and recently a $2.27 million “reptile house renovation” in Buffalo, instead of long-lasting, meaningful, impactful projects that foster ecotourism and enhance our waterfront-based economy.
Of the Greenway Commissioners presently listed on the website, Stevens (Buffalo), Soluri (Lewiston), Emminger (Tonawanda), Edwards (Sanborn), Magavern (Buffalo) and Broderick (Lewiston), not a single one represents Niagara Falls.
The following haven’t been updated on the Greenway website since the date listed: Greenway Commission meeting minutes (July 19, 2016), Greenway newsletter (Summer, 2014), Annual Report (2012-2013) and Progress Report (May, 2012).
What’s becoming clear is that, under the leadership of the politicians and bureaucrats like Mr. Belue, the Greenway has turned into a farce and a waste of money, never coming close to fulfilling whatever promise it may have had, something that probably occurred to Ms. Leccese just a few months into the job.