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ANALYSIS By Mike Hudson

Mayor Paul Dyster's ineptitude when it comes to conducting nationwide searches for the best and the brightest city department heads has become the punchline of many a joke here in Niagara Falls, but nowhere has the magnitude of this incompetence hurt city residents and businesses more than on Lewiston Road, which has been closed since August 2009.

The road reconstruction -- to date the only major capital project initiated and undertaken by the Dyster administration -- has turned into a boondoggle of epic proportions. Behind schedule and way over budget, the project offers a sad commentary on the administration's poor hiring decisions.

It was Dyster's pick for city engineer, Ali Marzban, who signed off on the project, which was supposed to have taken 24 months and cost $7.7 million. Dyster's search for the best engineer he could find lasted nearly a year. He was fired following a series of articles in this newspaper that showed Marzban was unlicensed to practice engineering in New York state and was, in fact, unlicensed to practice engineering anywhere in the country.

Last week, city officials said the project is less than 25 percent complete and more than $1.4 million over budget after 19 months.

The contractor picked to do the work, Man O' Trees Inc. of West Seneca, is preparing to sue the city, alleging a "gross misrepresentation" of the scope of the project by the city and Wendel Duchscherer, the architectural and engineering firm retained by the city to oversee the work.

The major stumbling block has been the high level of radioactive contamination encountered beneath the roadbed. The materials are in some cases 10 times higher than Man O' Trees was told to expect by the city.

The materials date back to World War II, when Niagara Falls was the No. 1 producer of uranium metal in the world. The "industrial slag" from that production was then used by the city in place of gravel as roads were built or reconstructed.

In the past, Dyster administration officials have not told contractors of the dangerous contamination. A May 2008 article in Artvoice by Geoff Kelly and Lou Ricciuti discussed the surprise expressed by Scott Klieger, the Pennsylvania contractor who brought the infamous "Pothole Killer" to Niagara Falls.

"You're joking," Klieger said, laughing, when asked if he'd been told about the radioactive waste contained in Niagara's roadways. Then his voice turned low and serious. "Do a lot of folks have cancer up there?"

If the administration has been less than forthcoming with the contractors who actually have to work in the contaminated areas, the question becomes whether or not Marzban -- the best and the brightest Dyster could find -- was told of the city's dark past.

Is Dyster's curious insistence on bringing in out-of-towners to hold top jobs here actually motivated by a desire to have people less likely to question his own decisions?

"Look, I'll take an offer if they want to pay me what they owe me to date, but the people of the city of Niagara Falls are going to get screwed," said Man O' Trees owner Dave Pfeiffer. "By the time this project is over, it's going to cost them millions upon millions of dollars more than expected."

Pfeiffer said because of the unexpectedly high levels of radioactivity the project will likely cost between $8 million and $9 million more than his initial bid of $7.7 million.

Man O' Trees had never undertaken a radioactive remediation project before, and workers had to undergo a training project and receive special licensing to undertake the Lewiston Road work.

In a few years, people may not remember the names of former fire chief Roger Melchior or former economic development director Peter Kay, both brought in by Dyster following lengthy much-hyped searches, only to be canned shortly afterward.

But Ali Marzban, whom Dyster allowed to serve as city engineer from April to August 2009 despite the fact he was unlicensed to do so, has left the city a legacy. The Lewiston Road project will drag on for years to come, cost more than twice what it was budgeted for, and most likely become the headache of the man or woman who replaces Dyster following the November election.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com Feb. 15, 2011