City Administrator Owens On Way Out The Door?, Melson To Replace?

by Mike Hudson

Reliable City Hall sources told the Niagara Falls Reporter that controversial City Administrator Donna Owens will be leaving the job she’s held since 2008. Her replacement is expected to be Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster’s secretary, Nick Melson, one source said.

Owens was hired following what Dyster said was a nationwide search to find the best and the brightest candidates to serve as department heads in his new administration. Previously, she had worked in Atlanta GA, and Baltimore, MD, in jobs that centered on the disposal of solid waste.

Her $110,000 starting salary shocked many here, as it was more than what the Mayor of Buffalo or the Erie County Executive got. But Dyster said Owens would be worth every penny.

After awhile, the city Council didn’t agree, and in 2012, her salary was slashed to $70,000 over the mayor’s objections.

In 2014, Owens championed the city’s new garbage hauling contract with Modern Disposal. The new pact, designed primarily to increase the number of Niagara Falls residents who were recycling, was a fiasco from the start.

Soon to be former City Administrator Donna Owens was great at handing out proclamations, and did so by the wheelbarrow load during her years here.

Soon to be former City Administrator Donna Owens was great at handing out proclamations, and did so by the wheelbarrow load during her years here.

At an informational meeting in Council chambers that June,  Lewiston resident and Niagara Falls businessman Craig Avery asked Owens about the simplest details of the plan, what the benefit to the city would be and what it would cost. She couldn’t answer,

Avery then called for Owens to resign or be fired, and Owens turned on the audience. Again challenged by Avery and others, she burst into tears. 

Billed as a cost savings of $500,000 per year, the new garbage plan was so poorly conceived that it wound up costing the city more than $500,000 than the old plan, reduced the amount of garbage the city would pick up from residents – so much so that the city had to employ full time Clean Team workers to clean alleyways and vacant lots where residents now dispose of garbage the city used to pick up – and threw thousands of businesses off the list of addresses serviced by curbside service.

Less service – more money – which described not only Owens’ garbage plan but her entire tenure – as the first of the $100,000 Dyster city hall employees in what is one of the poorest cities in America.

During her time in Niagara Falls, Owens steadfastly declined to buy a house in the city, living instead in rented rooms at the Jefferson Apartments on Rainbow Boulevard owned by Shawn Weber, a Dyster campaign contributor and frequent recipient of city and state business loans and grants.

She rarely worked more than four days a week, and fled the city as often as possible for the home she kept in Atlanta.

Her possible replacement, Melson, is a seasoned political operative Dyster managed to lure away from Albany as his secretary just in time for last year’s election.

Melson was very active as a taxpayer funded campaign director for Dyster last year.

Melson first became involved in politics here when he was 18 with an unsuccessful run for city Council. He later met then state Rep. Francine Del Monte and went to work for her as a political aide. In 2009, he ran unsuccessfully against Vincent Sandonato for the LaSalle seat in the county Legislature.

City Hall insiders agree that Melson couldn’t possibly do a worse job than Owens, who became known as the “invisible administrator” due to her reticence about appearing or speaking in public.

Indeed Melson might do a very good job since he has a far superior grasp of the city and its operations, is bright, energetic and is already actually doing much of the work the city administrator should be doing by default anyway for the mayor.

While Owens had an extremely poor grasp of the duties of city administrator and even poorer communications skills, Melson is outgoing, responsive and intelligent with a fine grasp of the city and its needs.

While other names have been mentioned as possible replacements for Owens, Melson’s already invaluable services to the mayor and the city, sources say put him in the lead.

Last month Dyster tried to give Melson a $20,000 raise and create a sort of shadow deputy mayor position which was shot down by the council after an expose in the Niagara Falls Reporter.

If it comes off as our sources say, Owens’ going and Melson’s ascending to city administrator may be finally a move by Dyster that suggest after eight years his administration is ready to finally tackle and solve the issues facing this city. 

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