By Jim Szwedo
BUT THIS TIME, WITH A TWIST
First off, to start this article, I do know what roles the Mayor and his administration play in governing this City. I am also aware of the role that the City Council serves in this governance. I am also painfully aware of what the City Charter mandates that their respective roles are.
Here’s where my problem begins: all of these representatives are elected by the citizens as a catalyst for (what we hope will be) the will of the people that elected them. When running for office, they always promise the citizens that their voices will be heard, and their wishes will be respected.
Once elected to office, the citizens’ agenda becomes secondary to their own. Once again, we find the same scenario playing out in Niagara Falls, but this time, with a twist.
At several public hearings, the citizens came out and rejected Mayor Restaino’s Centennial Park Project as presented. I was there when speaker after speaker spoke out against it. Community groups, public activists, and common citizens felt that the cost of this Project over the next ten years was too great.
No funding was ever identified by the Mayor, other than that of community development money, earmarked for the benefit of the most vulnerable citizens. Community representatives and activists like myself asked and pleaded for the administration to negotiate with the developer, rather than litigate and put the citizens of Niagara Falls in a perilous, debt-ridden situation for the next ten or twenty years.
At this time, the Mayor, with the backing of the Council, began what would be a lengthy and expensive legal process to uphold eminent domain, and take possession of the developer’s property. I knew that this path forward would cost the citizens tens of millions of dollars, and burden future generations of citizens, as well as future administrations. I felt it my responsibility to propose at this time what I believed would be a win-win solution to the problem.
The two-site solution to the problem would save the taxpayers tens of millions of dollars, and would have the effect of bringing additional business to our faltering Third Street District. This solution also had the possibility of extending through our now-defunct Main Street Business District.
Was this a perfect solution? Not really. But it was what I had hoped would be a starting point for negotiation between the City and the developer.
Utilization of existing City-owned properties in what I believe would be a better location, serving an existing business district (Third Street), and revitalizing an underutilized city parking ramp, seemed like a win-win situation. This would give the Mayor the means to begin what he believes is his “Signature Reelection Project”. By moving the project to City-owned properties, this gives the administration the ability to negotiate with the State for funding to build his “Centennial Project”.
Secondly, this also gives the administration the ability to negotiate truly, on behalf of the citizens, the best possible deal from Niagara Falls Redevelopment and Urbacon. By working with the developers instead of against them, I believe we can truly convince them to partner with, and compensate the citizens for, the future benefit of both our City and its citizens.
Now, here’s the twist I promised you: while the Mayor refused to negotiate in earnest with the developer, the Council began to see the benefits of negotiation, rather than litigation. And with the Mayor stonewalling, and refusing to even give the Council the costs of litigation, after requests spanning months, the City Council chose to take action on behalf of the welfare of the citizens that elected them, rather than backing the Mayor’s play for eminent domain.
What happened next is typical Niagara Falls politics.
The Mayor cried foul!
He had his Corporate Council tell them that they are acting illegally, violating the City Charter, and – figuratively speaking – pissing in his reelection Corn Flakes. Basically, “What gives you, the Council, the right to act on behalf of the will of the citizens, when I chose not to? Who do you think you are, public servants? Not on my watch!!!”
Robo-calls ensued. Not thirty minutes after the meeting, robo-calls began telling the public not to support Councilmen Zajac, Miles, and Cauley, because they were acting illegally by representing the citizens that elected them.
For what it’s worth, I, and several other community groups, stand behind the council members, for having the courage to act on behalf of their constituents, and not choosing what is fast becoming just another in a long line of failed City projects.
Administrations with that “my way or the highway” attitude, like I’ve said before, is nothing new in Niagara Falls politics. But what IS new, like I said with the twist, is three Council members having the courage to listen to, and act on behalf of the citizens, and question this administration’s actions. Perhaps this gives me just a small glimmer of hope for our future of our City.
As always, I thank you for listening.
Jim Szwedo President, Niagara Street Neighborhood Revitalization Organization, Inc.