The voters in Niagara Falls decided not to fire Mayor Paul Dyster.
They re-elected him last week by a fairly slim margin.
It was, in fact, a record low turnout. Only 9,052 registered voters, out of a possible 25,401-- a mere 36 percent bothered to vote.
Of these, 4,756 or 19 percent of the total electors in this city voted for Dyster.
In the end, a difference of 656 votes separated Dyster from his under-funded opponent, the Republican Johnny Destino, in this heavily Democratic town. Destino got 4,110 votes.
No one could honestly call the result of this election a mandate for Dyster.
Partly through voter apathy, partly because he had five times the money his opponent had and the power of incumbency -- these combined to help him barely hold onto his job.
During the campaign, Dyster was heard repeatedly asking voters for four more years to prove he could do something transformative with this city. He asked them also to give him, in effect, a rubber-stamp council.
Supportive of the fact that Dyster did not receive a mandate -- the voters apparently chose not to give him the supportive council he campaigned so hard to get.
Although the results at press time are not yet official, the voters -- it seems almost certainly -- have elected Glenn Choolokian -- although narrowly -- over Alicia Laible -- who was Dyster's handpicked council candidate.
This is telling. Choolokian campaigned on a platform that the council must be entirely independent of the mayor and his politics.
"It hurts our city to have a rubber-stamp council," Choolokian said during the campaign.
"Normally, a council will support a mayor, maybe 85 to 90 percent of the time. But that small percentage -- when something's wrong -- an independent council is there to stop it."
In the end, voters just barely agreed to allow Dyster the opportunity to remain on the job and hired a man who said he would be the public's watchdog with the independence to keep an eye on the mayor.
For the last year or more, leading up to the election, the Niagara Falls Reporter has taken a pessimistic, critical and somewhat dim view of Dyster. We had hoped to persuade voters to replace him.
To attempt to prove the policies Dyster was undertaking were wrong and in some cases obviously self-serving, we dissected, exposed to sunlight and sometimes cremated -- singlehandedly -- what we felt was wrong in policy, politics and sometimes, as in the case of, for instance, Ali Marzban (who the Reporter uncovered was an unlicensed engineer) -- in personnel.
Our work, it might be argued, perhaps had some slight impact. In 2007, Dyster soared past his Republican opponent with 80 percent of the vote. This year, he squeaked by with barely over 50 percent -- surprising when you consider Dyster and his team at Democratic headquarters spent what I estimate to be more than $100,000 on his campaign, in money and in-kind services, most of it funded by Buffalo business people with work before the city. His opponent was on a shoestring budget, a handful of earnest helpers and virtually no support from county Republicans.
I think a little research will prove that among the media in this city, only the Niagara Falls Reporter regularly wrote articles critical of Dyster. One of the daily newspapers endorsed him. I can recall no editorial ever taking Dyster seriously to task outside those published in the Reporter.
But for the Reporter, I submit, Dyster would have coasted to re-election. He would have had his mandate.
I submit further that now it is time for a change.
While the Reporter will continue to investigate, analyze and opine on the agenda of the mayor -- we will no longer try to persuade voters to fire him.
For me, personally, I am not prepared to go so far as to say I am ready to give Dyster the benefit of the doubt. My experiences with him and his administration, first when I was a businessman in the tourism industry and later as publisher of this newspaper, have not instilled in me the faith that Dyster is the right man for the job of leading one of the most benighted cities in America and making it prosperous again.
I am not ready to give him the benefit of the doubt. But given the choice, I would like to be able to do it. Who wouldn't want the mayor you are stuck with to be a good mayor?
There is always a chance -- now that he has fought so hard and manipulated so many so masterfully and somehow barely avoided defeat -- now that the politicking -- for him, one would hope -- is off his mind -- for a moment -- perhaps he can do what he was elected to do. He is not unintelligent. He is not bereft of ideas. He has experience in the office -- so there is a chance -- perhaps remote -- that he might settle in and become the mayor for all people that he promised to be.
To develop a heart for the people -- all the people -- not just the guys from Buffalo who donated to his campaign and his own inner circle.
Maybe the voters will be proven right in both re-electing him and a strong, independent council that will manage money properly -- who will assess projects and reject those that are spendthrift or meant to merely reward campaign contributors.
A checks and balances.
With Choolokian, alongside council members Bob Anderson and Sam Fruscione, it will be difficult for Dyster to outsmart or intimidate the council. Choolokian is an extremely able researcher. The man who will spend the time to check facts -- something the council badly needs. With facts in hand, an independent council can withstand Dyster's excellently honed spin and counter-spin techniques.
Still, I have to admit I have a slim hope that Dyster will one day see the wisdom of being frugal with taxpayers' dollars. That it is not his money he is doling out to campaign contributors in the form of studies and dubious projects -- but money that came from the toil and sweat of the people. And sometimes their heart's blood. I hope that he may learn to be accessible to all his constituents. To listen to them genuinely.
Even those who are inarticulate and simple. Even those he might think are stupid and below him. Something in his first term he failed to do.
I would wish for him to be patient and not think he alone is always right, but to unlock and open his mainly closed door, or better yet, go out and offer a big tent for the people to come under. To spend more time listening and less time talking.
In the end, it is fair to say, our mutual goal -- all of us -- is the same -- to resurrect this city. Politics are over for a time.
We have a mayor, we have an independent council, we have an independent weekly newspaper and we have the people.
Wherever we may find common ground, we should work together, setting aside all personal animus for the welfare of all.
However -- and this is our job -- wherever we find abuse of power, self-serving in governance, foolishness, aberrant behavior, injustice, waste or fraud, we will report it.
The Niagara Falls Reporter, which existed for 10 years before I arrived on the scene as its publisher, derives -- in my opinion -- its greatness -- and it is great -- for just this reason: We will say anything, anytime to anyone without fear of retribution.
And one thing more -- we never masquerade our opinions behind the fiction that we are writing a straight news story like many newspapers in this country do. We tell you up front that what we write is our opinion.
It was our opinion that Dyster should have been fired.
He has not been fired.
It is now my hope that he will become a good mayor.
Failing that -- I hope the incoming council will be strong enough to keep him in check.
With Choolokian on board -- a powerful, intelligent man of independence -- a man who in my opinion has the potential to be the next mayor of this city -- we can have a strong council.
That fact alone can improve the city -- even if a mayor is a self-serving one-sided politico. With Choolokian, Anderson and Fruscione leading the council, we should have a council that realizes this money they are authorizing for expenditure is not their money, but money that came from the damn hard work of the people.
If all else fails, we will ring the alarm bell -- project by project -- as we have done before -- for some of the worst of them -- like the Jayne Park plan to convert that beautiful, quiet neighborhood park to a regional park -- apparently just to spend money -- or exposing to sunlight and subsequent bacterial disinfection the secret fund -- where anonymous donors were to pay part of the salaries of City Hall people and in effect secretly own City Hall.
We were there and will be again.
Count on it.
|Niagara Falls Reporter||www.niagarafallsreporter.com||Nov. 15, 2011|