By Ken Cosentino
Things got heated during a recent Niagara Falls City Council meeting.
After the last public speaker finished, Council Chairman David Zajac said, “OK, the meeting adjourned!” and banged the gavel prematurely.
Councilman Donta Myles protested the closure of the meeting, which Zajac carried out in direct violation of Robert’s Rules of Order, a manual of parliamentary procedure by which the city claims to conduct its meetings.
Councilman Myles’ Accusations
The Reporter asked Councilman Donta Myles about Zajac’s actions, and Myles replied, “Sheer abuse of power, a lot of intentional ignorance as it pertains to how we operate our meetings. Our corporation counsel and our legal advisors are working for the mayor and his administration and his cronies who sit next to me.”
Councilman Myles knew he was in the right, and he argued for his right to speak on certain subjects, most notably Mayor Restaino’s Centennial Park project.
After Zajac banged the gavel and Myles responded, Zajac said, “We do this all the time.”
Myles then educated Zajac about Robert’s Rules of Order.
Said Myles, “Usually we say, ‘does anyone have any questions before we close.’”
Zajac replied smugly, “I’ve never done that.”
Perhaps if Zajac is unfamiliar with parliamentary procedure, he should pass the power of the Council Chairperson on to somebody who cares about conducting business professionally in the proper manner.
Myles told the Reporter, “What this past week’s meeting showed was a continuation of muzzling our voices. Zajac knows good and well that we always ask at the end of the meeting does anyone from the council have anything to say. By him going about it the way that he did, it shows what his intentions are. Not one soul out of all four stood up and stood for what was right. Everybody claimed that they knew about Robert’s Rules of Order, but if they were following the rules, they would know that adjourning the meeting requires a motion to adjourn, someone seconding it, and a majority vote.”
Myles makes a valid point. After reviewing footage of the incident, it was clear that Zajac attempted to belittle Myles for setting the record straight. Ultimately, Zajac ended up with egg on his face, and Myles stood his ground, knowing he was right.
In the opinion of Myles, Zajac’s actions were not due to a lack of understanding, but due to willful ignorance.
Says Myles, “As soon as I started to check him [Zajac] on it, it exposed the intentional ignorance… next week, you’re probably going to hear the gas lighting at its worst. They’ll say, ‘Oh, I didn’t know…’ They knew.”
Lack of Transparency in Centennial Park Project
When asked why he believed the city council intentionally suppressed his voice, Myles replied, “What’s going on right now at City Hall is important. The other council members are marching to the beat of the mayor’s drum. If we look at every public hearing we’ve had regarding Centennial Park, they always go hard, asking Niagara Falls Redevelopment’s lawyer tons of questions. But when the City’s outside attorney Daniel Spitzer gets up there, they’re mute. They don’t ask him anything. I was the only one asking any questions of Spitzer, logical questions about spending and maintenance, who is fiscally responsible for the staffing and this eminent domain process?”
Myles is referring to attorney Dan Spitzer of the law firm Hodgson Russ, representing the city of Niagara Falls in the eminent domain case against NFR for parcel 0.
Councilman Myles is rightfully frustrated about being left in the dark. How can he, or anyone else, make educated decisions about how to spend the taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars without all the necessary information?
Says Myles, “I’ve been emailing Dan Morello left and right asking questions. I’ve asked him how much we have paid to Hodgson Russ regarding this Centennial Park project. He has yet to give me that information. I’m positive this is a lot of money, and people don’t have a clue about how much we are ALREADY SPENDING on this process.”
Mayor Restaino’s Disconnect from the Public
Myles’ sentiments should be the focus of the entire city council. The city has already begun the legal process toward eminent domain. Money is already being spent. Given Mayor Restaino’s track record and his lack of transparency about the Centennial Park project, none of this is surprising. Last year, the New York Coalition for Open Government released a “Naughty and Nice” list, featuring Mayor Restaino as one of ten officials on the “naughty” list; politicians who are suppressing/withholding/preventing information from reaching the public.
Myles continues, “Mayor Restaino is so disconnected from the public. He’s not listening to what the people want. At the last hearing, most public speakers spoke out against using Community Development Block Grant [CDBG] funds. I’ve told the administration that it’s a mistake to even put the CDBG funds on the table to purchase land for something that’s just an idea. That’s all Centennial Park is: an idea.”
Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) Funds Misuse
Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds are a part of federal HUD funding, which the city uses for a wide array of initiatives. Explains Myles, “We voted, I voted against, at the end of 2022 – the city council made the CDBG funds an option [for funding Centennial Park]. I told them this shouldn’t be an option. This is for development, reconstruction of certain homes for people who need it the most, our streets need to be paved, our non-profit organizations, demolition – all of these things that we need in terms of services; that’s where these CDBG funds go. The mayor is taking away from our youth and the ‘have-nots’ in the city. He’s taking away from the services in the city.”
According to Myles, the Mayor’s planned usage of CDBG funds will impact the underprivileged members of Niagara Falls the most. This has led to hard opposition from community members who have attended council meetings and public hearings in order to voice opposition against the use of CDBG funds. There is a term for this type of impropriety, and that term is “gentrification.”
Myles Expresses Concern Over City’s Legal Counsel
Myles continued, “From here on out, we should probably start using outside legal counsel because I don’t trust the city’s legal counsel. I asked if there is a way for us to motion or draft a resolution to take the CDBG funds off the table, period. It shouldn’t be an option. This is a big mistake, and I’m totally against it.”
After Zajac prematurely banged the gavel, Myles made numerous attempts to be heard. Several times Zajac can be heard speaking over Myles. Members of the public quickly called out Zajac’s behavior, yelling, “Stop talking over him!”
Zajac sat silently, a smug grin on his face.
Myles stated, “I have questions. We’ve talked about zoning ordinances when it comes to the Airbnbs. I’ve spoken against it when it comes to what it will do to our community. I knew that zone was going to prematurely gentrify our city. People can only participate in short-term rentals suffocated into one area. The people who live there will be displaced. I’ve seen it, and I’ve gotten the calls. Over 16 families called me and told me about how their rent almost tripled because their buildings were becoming Airbnbs.”
Myles Criticizes Zoning Ordinances and Mayor’s Motivations for Centennial Park Project
Myles is referring to the zone in which the Mayor proposes Centennial Park should be located, which has been designated by the Mayor and city council as specific to allow the operation of Airbnbs.
Myles told the Reporter, “This explains why the mayor pushed so hard against Short Term Rentals (STRs). Let’s suffocate this area into a zone that will help build the hoteliers’ wealth. If you notice, once all the moratoriums regarding the STRs came into place, the mayor pretty much started talking about Centennial Park immediately. Nothing is inclusive. Nothing really appears to show anything that will benefit our community or any kind of real employment.”
Myles continued, “Most of the CDBG funds are used to help underprivileged people, such as the marginalized and impoverished areas, including the North End. I don’t trust the thought process of this mayor and his administration, because they haven’t been transparent. They haven’t been forthcoming. They want to build it behind the casino hotel, which brings interest to the casino. The casino would block the view from Centennial Park to our business district. So people would either go from Centennial to the casino or to Canada or to the state park. It makes zero sense.”
Myles Questions Mayor’s Use of Public Funds and Challenges Zajac’s Behavior
When asked if Mayor Restaino is serving the interests of the taxpayers of Niagara Falls or some other private interests, Myles gave his opinion, “All of the mayor’s buddies from the hotel association, the TM Montante Group, etc. are all supporting him! Those are his buds. They all step up to the podium and say, ‘Oh yes, we support the Centennial Park project, and we don’t give a crap what it does to the community. I just built a hotel over there, and this is going to keep people in that area.’ That may not be their exact words, but that’s what I heard. None of them have offered to fund Centennial Park.”
Indeed, the association of hotel owners, led by Frank Strangio, was a lone voice in support of Mayor Restaino’s plans during the last hearing at city hall.
It’s unclear why exactly Mayor Restaino is attempting to use public funds to sue a developer who has already secured private funding for a project that’s ready to break ground.
Says Myles, “NFR’s project is not going to cost us a dime. I’ll keep NFR’s feet to the fire to make sure that they follow through with construction. Besides that, they’re talking about GIVING the city land. GIFTING us land. The mayor is seeking eminent domain when the city is doing a piss-poor job of maintaining the land that it already owns. NFR takes much better care of its land than the city does. Zajac knew there was a possibility that I was going to say something that would go against the grain of this process.”
Myles continued, “I have been asking via text messages, tagging all council members in emails asking for the legal fees that we’ve been paying for this whole eminent domain and Centennial Park project. I think that’s another reason why Zajac banged the gavel so quickly.”
Myles Stands His Ground
During Myles’ speech at the end of the council meeting, Zajac responded, “Did you inquire about which lines of [CDBG] funding it will come from? How are you saying we are taking money away from people who really need it when you don’t really know what it is?”
It was clear that Zajac has his eyes set on utilizing CDBG funds for the mayor’s legacy project.
Zajac appears to be gatekeeping and unsuccessfully gaslighting Myles, who has done his due diligence in seeking the necessary information to make informed decisions on behalf of the taxpayers.
Myles then asked Zajac to please follow proper procedures while adjourning future council meetings.
Zajac’s response was, “At the end, if you’d like to do that, can we keep it to stuff pertinent to that agenda?”
Let’s be clear: Zajac does not have the power to determine which topics council members wish to speak on. Myles knew this, and he responded perfectly, saying, “No! This can be towards anything, we are representatives of the city. If I have a question about anything, the good of the community or anything!”
The crowd erupted in applause.