Changes afoot in the Buffalo mayor’s office are certainly attention-grabbing, as one top official exits and another enters the stage.
Finance Commissioner Janet E. Penksa is leaving City Hall soon to become executive director of the Jacobs Institute. Ellen E. Grant, a veteran of various health care organizations, will become one of two deputy mayors, joining First Deputy Mayor Steven M. Casey.
Buffalo residents should take particular note of news that Penksa is leaving the mayor’s administration, as she has been a key to the successes seen during much of Byron W. Brown’s nearly two terms in office.
When she first arrived at City Hall in 2006, Penksa had already had an impressive career. She was a former associate vice president at the University at Buffalo and an original member of the Erie County Fiscal Stability Authority, what is known as the county’s control board. She was also a key member of Buffalo’s lobbying firm in Albany following her 2005 departure from the control board.
Earlier, she moved up the ladder in state government fiscal policy positions, culminating in 1998 in the top non-political post as secretary to the Assembly’s Ways and Means Committee.
Penksa’s mayoral appointment was a win-win for the Brown administration and the city. Her policy experience and know-how contributed, along with others, to the mayor’s success in righting the city’s financial ship. Eventually Buffalo’s credit rating improved from near junk status to the A category.
She also helped lead labor negotiations with the city’s white-collar and blue-collar unions, which resulted – for the first time in recent memory – in employees contributing to their health care coverage, at 15 percent for family and 25 percent for single coverage.
Penksa will oversee administrative responsibilities and new business development at the Jacobs Institute, an independent nonprofit organization in the building that houses the Gates Vascular Institute.
Penksa will continue to serve on the Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency as a citizen member. And while she will be difficult to replace, the mayor should search far and wide for a new finance commissioner. It’s possible that the best person for the job is already working at City Hall.
Also highly regarded and credited by Penksa for helping the administration reach major goals, City Budget Director Donna J. Estrich will serve as acting finance commissioner. Estrich should be considered for the job, if she wants it.
Meantime, Brown has found a new deputy mayor in Grant to provide assistance on both the education and health platforms.
Grant will leave her position as commissioner of senior services for Erie County, a position she started in June, in order to cover a series of duties in City Hall, including acting as the mayor’s liaison to the Board of Education and the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus. Grant’s mission as a deputy mayor includes the type of community outreach that should enhance educational partnerships.
These are two significant developments for the mayor’s office. Care should be taken in filling the resulting key vacancy, while the new deputy mayor should provide valuable assistance for the city’s schools, which need all the help they can get.