Buffalo News Special Report:

Third of a four-part series

There was less than 24 hours left to strike a budget deal.

County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz had failed to convince legislators that a tax hike was needed during hastily called meetings over sandwiches and chips.

So Poloncarz, on the eve of the budget vote, insisting he was still open to compromise, summoned reporters to his 16th-floor office suite to hammer home his view that legislators were about to push through “fake cuts” and “phony gimmicks.”

“They’re wrong and they know that,” Poloncarz said.

And later: “They’re too damn afraid of making the hard decision that’s necessary.”

Some legislators found Poloncarz’s tone insulting. A day later, they pushed through their own budget cuts.

It’s the type of scene that many who have worked with Poloncarz say defines his first year in office.

He’s smart and works hard. He knows a lot about county finances, but he was unable to work out a deal to get his budget plan passed.

And one other thing. He doesn’t have the personality of your typical glad-handing politician. Just the opposite, some say. In fact, when describing Poloncarz, words like aloof and bland are as likely to come up as intelligent and analytical.

“There’s no personality or charisma,” a Williamsville businesswoman observed.

“Not friendly,” said a 53-year-old Buffalo Democrat.

“Thinks he knows it all,” said another community leader.

As part of a series of surveys on leadership in Buffalo and Erie County, The Buffalo News asked local business, community, government and political leaders their views on Poloncarz and his first year as county executive.

The survey found uncertainty over Erie County’s future, particularly regarding the county’s finances and what some see as a lack of vision from the county executive. Forty-five percent of those surveyed said the county is headed in the right direction, while 30 percent said it is not. Another 24.5 percent are unsure.

“The county lost more residents in the last 10 years than any other New York State county,” one community leader said.

A slim majority – 51 percent – said Poloncarz has what it takes to move the county in the right direction.

As for Poloncarz’s first year in office, more of those surveyed liked what they saw than didn’t, but for many, the jury is still out. About 43 percent say Poloncarz did an above-average job in his first year. About 30 percent describe his first year as average, and another 27 percent as below average.

“He’s got the ability to be a good county executive,” said Robert M. Glaser, a Republican who served as chairman of the Erie County Fiscal Stability Authority. “I think he’s still growing into the job.”

Poloncarz gets kudos for reaching a lease deal with the Buffalo Bills, for supporting county libraries and cultural institutions in his budget and for the way he’s dealt with county unions. He also gets praise for the quality of his top staff, particularly Deputy County Executive Richard M. Tobe.

But it was Poloncarz’s handling of his first budget proposal that leaders most often cited as his biggest failure.

Hard-line stance on budget

Criticism of how Poloncarz handled the budget came from all sides – Democrats and Republicans, those who rated his overall performance as above average and those who gave him lower marks.

For some, it was simply that Poloncarz sought a tax increase. For others, it was the inability of a Democratic county executive to push his spending plan through a County Legislature that Democrats controlled. That also reflected criticism from some leaders that Poloncarz’s personality sometimes gets in the way.

“He’s a bit too ‘my way or the highway,’ but after his budget battle defeat, perhaps he’s getting better,” one Democrat said. “He needs to learn to compromise. He may not be as politically astute as he thinks he is.”

Some legislators saw Poloncarz’s offer for a budget compromise as “too little, too late” when it became clear that the Legislature wasn’t going for his plan. Needing just one more vote to pass his budget, Poloncarz sought a deal in the final days through Legislator Kevin R. Hardwick, a City of Tonawanda Republican.

“I think that the county executive decided that he was willing to seek a compromise at the last minute,” Hardwick said, “but those sorts of discussions should have started a lot sooner.”

Looking back, Poloncarz doesn’t see the budget as his failure, but instead a failure on the part of legislators to see “the reality of the issues that we were facing.”

Could he have worked earlier to tailor a budget deal that legislators would have accepted?

Maybe, he conceded during a recent interview. But he has come to believe “there were some legislators who would not have voted for any tax increase, no matter what we did.” People forget, he said, that he proposed the tax increase only after trimming $20 million from the budget and dipping into the surplus.

“Every time we thought we had a chance to negotiate a budget deal, the goal posts were moved,” Poloncarz said. “I’ve always said compromise is not a bad word, but it takes two people to compromise. If one side says they’re willing to compromise, but then they do not and they move the goal posts, who’s at fault there?”

While the budget battle defined Poloncarz’s first year for many survey respondents, it was his personality that stood out in his leadership style.

An overall grade of C+

The News sent three separate surveys to 320 government officials and business and community leaders in Erie County. One asked people to rate the county executive, but only if they had direct interaction with him; 117 people responded to that survey.

The respondents gave the county executive an average grade of 3.3, or a C+, on a scale of 1 (poor) to 5 (excellent) on 18 leadership categories.

He scored average or above average on each category. His top grades were in intelligence and work ethic. His lowest scores were for vision and temperament. That was hammered home by the top weaknesses cited – those related to his personality, a perceived lack of vision and a potential to be too partisan.

His greatest strength, by far, was the fiscal and legal knowledge he brought to the job as a former county comptroller and attorney.

“He has some of the qualities you would desire in a leader, but in the end, his deficient interpersonal skills will be his downfall,” a Republican said.

It’s not just his critics who faulted Poloncarz for a prickly persona.

“Sometimes lacks people skills,” wrote one community leader, a Buffalo Democrat, who otherwise gave Poloncarz high marks across the board and rated his overall performance as “excellent.”

Poloncarz is the first to acknowledge that he’s not a “back-slapper.”

He’s not the type to work a room with glad-handing and smiles. He likes a debate, a chance to pick apart an argument and employ the Socratic method he learned in law school.

“Some people don’t like it that I’m willing to stand up for what I believe and sit there and say, ‘I think you’re wrong and here’s why,’ ” Poloncarz said. “They’re used to the back-slapper elected official who will say anything to anyone to get a vote and keep them happy.”

He knows that can rub people the wrong way, but he sees it as standing up for what he sees as right. He’ll put it in writing, too.

Last April, after Legislator Joseph C. Lorigo, a West Seneca Conservative, criticized Poloncarz’s four-year plan in a column that appeared in the West Seneca Bee, Poloncarz sent out a four-page letter picking apart the piece and accusing Lorigo of leveling “factually inaccurate partisan attacks towards my administration in a cheap attempt to score political points.”

The letter was copied to the entire County Legislature, the county control board and the county comptroller.

“It was completely over the top,” said Lorigo, a frequent critic of the Poloncarz administration. “He doesn’t know how to respond rationally. I think the best leaders, whether it be county executive, mayor or president, are people that can effectively communicate their point of view without being so partisan.”

Misleading public persona

Others say Poloncarz’s public persona is misleading. Get to know him, and he’s even-tempered, likable and approachable.

“He clearly is not a dynamic personality that lights up a room like a former Gov. Mario Cuomo or a Bill Clinton,” said Daniel C. Oliverio, who met Poloncarz when Oliverio served as chairman of the county’s Fiscal Stability Authority. “But on a personal level, Mark is a gentleman. He’s interesting to talk to, and we’ve had difficult conversations. But they’ve always been productive, and he was willing to listen.”

And those hard-line stances?

Especially when it came to the budget, supporters see those as the county executive’s strong belief in what he sees as right for the county.

“He’s not going to do something out of political expediency that’s going to hurt the county,” said Robert M. Graber, a fellow Democrat and clerk of the Erie County Legislature. “Because he really does care about the county, the people and the services.”

On the survey, respondents ranked his “ability to compromise” slightly above average, and that was among Poloncarz’s five lowest-scored leadership qualities.

But he also got one of his highest scores – a 3.85 out of 5 – for providing leadership on an issue that took a great deal of compromise: striking a deal with the Buffalo Bills to lease Ralph Wilson Stadium for the next 10 years.

That’s not the only area he showed leadership, according to some.

Compromise on land bank

Poloncarz proved he could compromise early in his first year with the creation of a regional land bank to deal with vacant and abandoned properties, said Sam Magavern, co-director of the Partnership for the Public Good.

The application to win a spot in the state’s new land bank program was almost derailed by disagreement over how much control the City of Buffalo would have on the board overseeing the regional land bank. Mayor Byron W. Brown wanted the city to have six seats on the 11-member board. Poloncarz initially wanted the city to have three.

It was clear that if the city and the county submitted separate applications, the chances of either getting the state’s approval would be slim. A Saturday morning meeting between the two leaders averted that situation. In the end, the city got five seats. The county got three.

“The ability to collaborate with the city on that was great,” Magavern said. “He had just taken office and didn’t have a pre-existing working relationship with the mayor, particularly, so I thought it was impressive that the two of them worked together on an important thing. ... It spoke well about both of them.”

It is those victories that Poloncarz focuses on when he looks back on his first year, not whether area leaders rate him as “not very friendly.”

Public, private lives

Poloncarz breaks apart his public and private lives.

There’s Poloncarz, the county executive, the guy who spent six years in the county comptroller’s office. Then there’s Poloncarz, the guy who grew up in Lackawanna and still plays rounds at South Park Golf Club.

“The person that I am with my friends that I’ve known for 30 years is not necessarily the same person that I’m going to be around a group of people I’ve never met before,” Poloncarz said. “Some elected officials and politicians will act as if you’re my best friend that I’ve known for three decades, even if I just met you three minutes ago. That’s not me.”

The personality issue is not unique to Poloncarz among county executives.

Former County Executive Chris Collins was often criticized as aloof and arrogant during his term. Former County Executive Dennis T. Gorski was also viewed as having a personality issue.

In a Buffalo News survey conducted in 1990, two years into his term, Gorski received a below-average rating for his temperament. That improved to above average in a subsequent survey, done in 1999, toward the end of his third term. Gorski’s overall score was 3.5 out of a possible 5 in the 1990 survey and 3.6 in the 1999 one.

To Poloncarz, the job is about substance, not style. “My responsibility is not to keep everybody happy as the county executive of good times,” Poloncarz said. “My goal is to ensure that I’m the county executive who runs a tight ship, who ensures that the services that the public wants, demands and needs are provided as effectively and efficiently as possible.”

When it comes to those goals, however, some say Poloncarz hasn’t clearly communicated his vision.

Low grade for vision

The county executive got his lowest leadership quality score – a 3.01, or just about average – for vision. Poloncarz wasn’t surprised. Some of the region’s leaders, he said, just haven’t heard his message after one year in office. He believes that will change, especially after delivering his first State of the County address last week and detailing his economic development agenda later this spring.

“We’ve got a proven track record of a year in office,” Poloncarz said. “And now I can really put down my stamp of what I want and what I see as the vision for my administration and this community going forward.”

As he does that, Oliverio said, Poloncarz and other county leaders will need to “sacrifice a little partisanship for some vision and some political risk to benefit all of us.”

“We’re at a crossroads here in Erie County with the situation with the state where we’re going to have to do more ourselves,” Oliverio said. “That’s going to require some leadership, some risk and politicians taking a stand for the good of the community.”


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Coming Wednesday: Howard Zemsky

Few doubt the county executive’s work ethic or intelligence, but after a year in office, many find fault in his approach to politics.