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SEP 29 - OCT 06, 2015

Misplaced Priorities, Bickering at County Leave Bad Taste in LaSalle Candidate Bilson's Mouth—and So Does Lack of Drinking Water

By Deborah Eddel

SEP 29, 2015

Rob Bilson

“I’m running to help my family.”

That’s what Rob Bilson, the Republican-backed candidate for County Legislator in the 3rd District—essentially, LaSalle—tells me over a cup of coffee Sunday. I ask him to elaborate,.

“I’m running to help my family, and a whole bunch of families just like mine in LaSalle,” he says. “Families that were left behind by a mismanaged city, families that are watching our elected leaders here repeat the same mistakes that made this city start circling the drain while they were growing up. We all want a better future for our kids.”

I suggest to him that his isn’t a novel message—every politician, after all, says he wants to help the next generation. He dismisses that.

“I remember, 35 years ago, when I was a child, playing outside, watching the toxic smoke billow up from the smokestacks. Now I’m watching my own kids play, with the same smokestacks behind them, and I think: why are we tolerating this?”

Bilson is at once friendly—and mad. Not in a cruel way, not in a violent way. Bilson projects a sunny optimism, and yet you can tell that, like Howard Beale in “Network,” he is ready to declare “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” And, after talking with him for a few minutes, like Beale’s audience, you want to join in the chorus: “We’re mad as hell, and we’re not going to take this anymore!”

Bilson, of course, lacks Beale’s mania, but he knows that the politicians that have run Niagara Falls—and those they have sent to represent neighborhoods like his in county government—have only exacerbated the problem.

“There is no leadership. I have waited for years for someone to stand up, to step forward, and put my kids first, to say my neighbors’ family was more important than the political bosses at City Hall, to say the kid down the street’s future mattered more than making sure the right union got a contract,” Bilson tells me. “You know what? That leader hasn’t emerged, and I’m their dad. It’s time I stand up and fight so my kids can grow up in a better Niagara Falls than I did.”

Bilson, whose demeanor is outwardly friendly, gets a rigid seriousness when he talks about his family. As a father of five, it seems to occupy his thoughts a lot during our conversation.

I ask him who’s to blame, the Republicans or the Democrats. I’m somewhat surprised by his answer.

“Yes,” he says. “The Republicans and the Democrats.”

I ask him to clarify, again.

“I have lived here all my life. I’ve watched Republican mayors and Democratic mayors. I’ve seen Democrats and Republicans elected to county government from the Falls—although certainly more Democrats. But both sides have been elected, and both sides have done the same thing.”

What’s that? I ask.

“Bicker. They fight. They engage in a game of one-upmanship where they criticize each other for things they did three years ago and try to assign blame. They do it at City Hall, and they do it at the County Courthouse. Meanwhile, they get nothing done. I get that Washington, D.C. is supposed to have Gridlock. But Niagara Falls?”

Not that Bilson doesn’t assign a bit of blame himself, questioning priorities set by Falls government, which he charges “neglects LaSalle like an unwanted step-child.”

“The Downtown portion of Buffalo Avenue was reconstructed before the main section, where small businesses operate and families reside. That’s what happens when City Hall puts Downtown interests ahead of the families of LaSalle. Buffalo Avenue should look like Center Street in Lewiston, not a warzone.”

There’s a bit of Donald Trump in Bilson—like Trump, he sports a distinctive hairdo; in Bilson’s case, though, the hair is a high pompadour, a throw-back to his rock-and-roll roots. The front man for the musical act Seven Day Faith, Bilson still likes to rock out, taking the time to strum a few chords on a Gibson Les Paul while I interviewed him. But he’s also a serious, buttoned-down candidate with serious ideas that have come from his daytime gig as operations supervisor for a Buffalo-based risk management company. And, like Trump, he seems to be tapping into an anger about government’s absolute dysfunction.

I turn the subject to his opponent, Democrat Mark Grozio, who was elected two years ago when voters turned out Republican Cheree Copelin.

“Look, if you’re looking to me to say my opponent is a bad person, I won’t do that,” Bilson says. “Mark Grozio just isn’t getting the job done, and the stakes are too high for me to accept that.”

What are the stakes? I ask him.

“My five kids. Four little girls and a little boy. And I think I have a lot of neighbors who can relate to that point.”

The young candidate, who at 38 has a youthful vigor and earnestness, but a seriousness more typical of men 20 years his senior, says he worries about the environmental legacy of successive city and county governments, and worries that the children growing up today will pay for mistakes being made by elected politicians currently serving.

Bilson shows me out of his Cayuga Drive house and we stretch our legs, taking a walk.  He points to the scarred, empty lots that once held houses in Love Canal, just a few minutes’ walk away.

“That’s what government inaction does to a neighborhood,” Bilson says. “I’ve been talking to people on the other end of this district, the streets in the 60s and 50s, and the people down there worry about the fumes from garbage burning just down the street. They tell me their rat problems have only gotten worse.”

Bilson is referring to the very issues that, two years ago, contributed to former Legislator Copelin’s defeat—and Grozio’s election. With residents raising alarm about the Covanta garbage incinerator, economic development officials and the Chamber of Commerce mounted a PR campaign to defend Covanta’s planned expansion of the site, which would bring trainloads of garbage in to be burned.  Grozio rode a wave of discontent about that environmental nightmare to a win over Copelin, who remained largely silent.

Since that election, Grozio has sat in on one City Hall-run “neighbor to neighbor” meeting about the Covanta expansion, while remaining otherwise mute about the facility—even as the DEC rammed the approval process forward with a barely-noticed 15-day comment period.

It’s almost like the DEC—and Grozio—didn’t really want to hear what you had to say. Actually, this fits a larger pattern with Grozio, whose nickname among his Republican peers in the County Legislature is “Caspar.”  As one explained to me, “The friendly ghost. Oh, Mark’s a friendly enough guy, but he’s a ghost. You never really see or hear from him. It’s almost like he’s invisible.”

Of course, Covanta is happy, too. New York City alone will be paying them $2.8 billion to bring trainloads of trash to Niagara Falls so it can be burned—as far away from the Big Apple as you can get in New York State, incidentally.

This all angers Bilson.

“When they brought that site online, their supporters kept talking about a ‘$30 million investment.’ They invested $30 million bringing more garbage into Niagara Falls and spewing out even more pollution. And some family that’s just scraping by? Their kids get to go out and play in front of those smokestacks. Where’s the leadership?”

None of these things were the breaking point for Bilson, however. When I ask what finally made him commit to running, his response is three words long:

“Frozen water pipes.”

I nod. There really is no need to elaborate on that point. No issue has more directly defined incumbent Mayor Paul Dyster, or his party’s administration of local government, than 250 homes centered on 72nd Street spending the last two winters living in Third World conditions.

What has Grozio had to say on that topic?  He called a city contractor’s failure to properly insulate the underground pipes a “multimillion dollar mistake” in February TV interview, but didn’t bring any county resources to bear to fix the problem. Nor did he win any appropriations of funding to address the Stone Age conditions.

“I would have been at City Hall every day demanding the mayor and city council address this issue immediately,” Bilson tells me. “And I would have used county resources—like the grant writers they pay thousands of dollars to every month—to seek help from the state. Instead of doing any of that, you know what my opponent was doing in March, when 60 houses still had no water service? He was sponsoring a resolution to attack the Republican majority leader. It didn’t have the votes to pass. It was showboating, while his constituents had no running water.”

Grozio’s resolution, which aimed to censure Lockport Republican Dick Updegrove, the top GOP politician in the Legislature, for his interpretation of a state law on casino funds, failed by an 11-4 vote.  A week after Grozio’s resolution to censure Updegrove failed, News 4 reported that 60 homes around 72nd Street were still without water. Grozio did not bring any resolutions about the frozen water pipes.

“People couldn’t shower, couldn’t flush their toilets, couldn’t draw a glass of water to drink, but at least our elected representatives managed to call each other a lot of names about an unrelated issue,” Bilson said. “Where’s the leadership?”

Bilson seems an able, and approachable, young politician, and I tell him this.  He seems disappointed.

“I really wanted to be a rock star, not a politician,” he tells me. “I always wanted to change the world. But while Bono might be out there saving the world, I’ve got to go fight for my kids’ neighborhood.”






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