Buffalo News Special Report
Second of a four-part series
By Jill Terreri and Susan Schulman / News Staff Reporters
If leadership means running an efficient day-to-day government, then Mayor Byron W. Brown is viewed as doing a good job leading the City of Buffalo.
The garbage gets picked up. The roads are plowed. Taxes are kept in check. Building permits are easier to obtain.
But if leadership is measured by a community vision – a sweeping blueprint for more jobs, better schools, stronger neighborhoods – then the movers and shakers of Buffalo and Erie County conclude the Brown administration's approach so far may be too cautious to get the job done. As Brown enters the final year of his second term and readies for a re-election campaign, The Buffalo News surveyed political, government, business and community leaders to get their views on how Buffalo and its two-term mayor are doing.
What emerged is a picture of a city on the move – from the waterfront, to the Theater District to the Medical Campus – but with City Hall viewed as more of an enabler and facilitator than a big-picture leader.
While keeping city finances in check in a tough economic climate and generally making City Hall more business friendly, the administration is also seen as steeped in politics, lacking vision and overly cautious – afraid to take the risks and tackle the tough issues that many movers and shakers believe must be confronted if Buffalo and the region it leads are to succeed.
“The mayor is not being the driver,” said Sharon L. Hanson, director of government relations for a local cable company who is also vice chair of the Erie County Medical Center board of directors. “He's comfortable in whatever seat he is in. To me, that is unfortunate. Sometimes you have to be the driver of the bus. As mayor, he needs to be in that position more.”
“I want him to be successful, but I don't know what he's doing to really move the needle,” added Peter F. Hunt, president of Hunt Real Estate.
On major issues, survey respondents said:
• The mayor cut taxes and streamlined the permit process for doing business in the city, but didn't advance a grand strategy to bring more jobs to Buffalo.
• He spent millions of dollars to knock down dilapidated houses, but offered no broad action plan to deal with poverty that afflicts one-third of the city's population.
• He expanded the city's crime surveillance and gun buy-back programs, but is alone among the state's five big city mayors in not endorsing Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's tough gun control law.
• He supported reconstruction of city school buildings, but otherwise has shown little leadership regarding the continuing failure of many city schools.
The survey also found that one of the significant economic projects the mayor has supported in the name of jobs and economic growth – the downtown casino run by the Seneca Nation of Indians – lacks support from many local movers and shakers. The casino came in last among 12 projects that survey respondents were asked to rank in terms of their importance to the region.
“I don't think casinos actually help the area,” said Vincent G. Crehan, a Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority commissioner, who is also president/business agent of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1342. “There are too many negatives,” he said, including seniors losing their life savings, gamblers embezzling to cover their losses and “everything else.”
“The oversaturated casino market makes this project a cancer, not a cure, for WNY's economic improvement,” added a survey respondent from Williamsville.
The movers and shakers also say Brown has allowed the perception to continue unchecked that his deputy mayor, Steven M. Casey, is the real power behind the throne. “The attitude is Casey runs the show, I hear it every day at Mattie's, Gigi's and the barber shops,” said one community leader, who was referring to two popular East Side restaurants.
The survey found close to two-thirds of leaders surveyed – 63 percent – think Buffalo is going in the right direction, often citing private development and Cuomo's promise of $1 billion to the region.
Little credit for momentum
But Brown isn't necessarily getting credit for that momentum. Less than half of those surveyed – 43 percent – said Brown has what it takes to move the city forward, with some saying the development occurs in spite of, not because of, the mayor.
Brown declined to comment for this story, but some of his supporters said Brown's methodical approach to running city government should not be underestimated.
“He's not afraid to fix the fundamentals in City Hall,” one government official said. “It's not splashy or sexy, but critical for Buffalo's long-term success.”
It's not realistic, other Brown supporters said, to think a mayor can single-handedly end poverty or restore an economy. And they point out that the mayor has no control over city schools.
Nonetheless, they said, Brown uses his strong relationship with Cuomo and his noncombative management style to move the city forward. Brown's work cutting taxes and improving day-to-day government operations, they said, promotes confidence in City Hall, and encourages private development.
“You don't invest in a city if you don't believe in the people running it,” said developer Paul F. Ciminelli of Ciminelli Real Estate. “I'm very impressed with the mayor. He cut taxes. He's committed to economic development. He has a good team to help facilitate.”
“Leadership can be ... supporting good projects that are going on, and I think that's what he's doing,” added Jeffrey M. Conrad, regional director of the Center for Employment Opportunities. “He doesn't get in the way when good projects are happening, but he's not the face of them.”
Brown would rather “lead from behind,” Ciminelli observed. The mayor puts his imprint on private developments by insisting all projects serve a community purpose, pay living wage, and foster jobs for women and minorities, Ciminelli and other developers said.
“The mayor's vision is to create an environment where people want to live, work and play,” Ciminelli said, adding that the vision is being realized. “There is a buzz out there. Young people want to be in Buffalo.”
Mayor gets 'C' in survey
These most recent survey results indicate some of Brown's luster waned over the years, as he transitioned from a rising star to a known commodity.
In 2007, two years into Brown's first term, and the last time The News conducted a leadership survey, 47 percent of those surveyed gave the mayor an above-average job rating, while 15 percent rated him average, and 39 percent below average.
In this latest survey, his above-average ranking dropped to 36 percent while his average rating increased to 31 percent. His below average rating dropped a few points to 33 percent.
Brown earned an average of three out of a possible five points for 18 personal and professional attributes, basically a grade of C, in the 2013 survey. His ranking on these 18 points was down slightly from the 3.3 – a C+ – that he received in 2007.
The mayor's best grades in the 18 categories are for intellect, temperament, work ethic and fiscal management. His lowest are in his vision, willingness to take unpopular stands, transparency and accessibility.
“He's not a person you can talk to,” said John T. Poniewierski, president of the Kaisertown Coalition, a neighborhood group, who noted that a police officer guards the mayor's door on the second floor of City Hall.
In another question, Brown's average grade on his ability to lead on eight specific issues facing the city was just below a C.
His top marks – 3.6 out of five – were for controlling taxes and managing public works, which includes such services as getting the streets plowed and garbage picked up.
His worst mark was in education. He received a 1.9, or a low D. “There really has been zero role,” said lawyer Arthur J. Giacalone. “I think that other mayors in other cities in the United States have voiced concerns and attempted to assist boards of education.” Brown also scored below a C in improving the economy, dealing with crime and improving housing.
This latest survey was one of three leadership surveys sent to 320 individuals in Buffalo and Erie County who are themselves in leadership positions. Survey recipients were asked to respond to the mayoral portion of the survey only if they had firsthand dealings with Brown. Just under 50 percent of those sent surveys – 154 – responded to at least one of the surveys, with 128 of them responding to the mayoral survey. Seventy-five percent of those responding to the mayoral survey identified themselves as white, 14 percent as black, and 4 percent as other race. Seven percent did not disclose their race.
The surveys were sent in equal proportions to representatives of business, government and politics, and a community category that includes the arts, culture, education, religion and neighborhood organizations.
Brown generally fared best when rated by the government/politics group – which includes some of his City Hall department heads – and worst when rated by community leaders.
Business rankings were generally in the middle, but the business leaders gave Brown the lowest mark among the three groups for vision as well as for addressing the city's public education crisis.
Minority views of Brown
Overall, the survey found blacks have a more positive view of Brown – the city's first black mayor – than do whites. Fifty-two percent of blacks versus 30 percent of whites say the mayor is doing an above-average job. Sixty percent of blacks, versus 36 percent of whites, said they believe the mayor has the ability to move the city forward.
But blacks gave Brown lower marks on dealing with crime than whites. And blacks were generally as critical as whites on the job the mayor's done with housing and neighborhood issues, the city's public school crisis, and job creation.
The mayor has made strides in diversifying the City Hall workforce, in the Law Department for example, where several black lawyers have been hired, said John V. Elmore, a lawyer in private practice.
“What impresses me is the younger ones are there getting litigation experience now, and will be able to move on and be placed in larger firms,” Elmore said.
But other African-Americans said the mayor isn't doing enough for minority communities. They pointed to a new five-acre splash pad at Martin Luther King Park that will open close to a year late and the demolition and redevelopment of the long-vacant Kensington Heights public housing complex that is years behind schedule. Crime and violence remain a problem, and people need jobs, said Darnell Jackson Sr., an East Side community leader. “He hasn't delivered to the East Side, period,” Jackson said. “We've got a serious unemployment rate here on the East Side.”
Some African-Americans suggested Brown takes the black vote for granted. “He believes he can't lose the black vote,” said Hanson, the cable company director.
At his recent State of the City address, Brown rattled off projects under way, including the Sabres' HarborCenter, redevelopment of the Tishman Building, expansion of Rich Products, Statler City, the Medical Campus, and Uniland's new Catholic Health headquarters.
“We put strategies in place that enabled our city to foster a positive new climate,” Brown said during his speech. He credited his efforts to reduce taxes, stabilize city finances and streamline the city permit process for bringing $1.5 billion in economic development projects – and the jobs that carries – to the city. “We are fast-tracking economic development in the city of Buffalo,” Brown said after the speech.
Survey respondents generally agreed that Brown's staff is easier to deal with than past administrations in terms of economic development.
“He should get credit for making it easier for developers, cutting through the red tape,” said attorney Elmore. “If Buffalo is considered to be a place the government will work for you, then developers will come here instead of other places. Let the marketplace do what it has to do.”
Survey respondents also praised the “green code” land-use plan the Brown administration has developed.
Lack of vision
Nonetheless, such changes – whether a new zoning code, more-efficient permits office, a better bond rating, or improved citizen complaint system – don't add up to a broad, bold vision for the city, many survey respondents said.
That may not be unusual for Buffalo, some said.
“This is a town that accepts change slowly and carefully, which reflects the mayor's cautious leadership,” said Mary Simpson, a neighborhood leader from Days Park.
And Timothy A. Tielman, a historic preservation advocate frequently at odds with the Brown administration, said Brown is no different from past mayors who have overseen Buffalo's declining population.
“Buffalo has been doing business as usual for as long as I've been alive,” said Tielman, 54, who heads the Campaign for Greater Buffalo History, Architecture and Culture. “It's an entrenched political culture. I have grown up in the city, and gotten into my middle ages without having a visionary mayor. We've never had a break-out mayor.”
Byron Brown Survey: Take the same survey sent to the area's movers and shakers here.
Coming Tuesday: The County Executive