Buffalo Common Council leaders reacted angrily Thursday to the disclosure that state planners of a Peace Bridge plaza project said they had received the approval from friendly city lawmakers while skirting the scrutiny of more critical Council members.
“I’m really angry,” said Council President Darius G. Pridgen. “What infuriates me is that whoever mentioned me in that meeting made it sound like they had me on their side, that we had some deep conversations, and it’s a lie.”
But despite the outrage from Pridgen and Niagara Council Member David A. Rivera, the Council met in a special session last week, after just a few hours’ notice, to approve the document state planners discussed in April, which allows the project linking the Peace Bridge to Interstate 190 to move forward.
In fact, with the consent of six lawmakers, the Council waived a 24-hour notice for special meetings, thus eliminating any public notice before the meeting was held. No public input was invited, and Council members did not discuss what they were voting on.
Passing items without discussing them is common, Pridgen said, adding that the project had been talked about in the Council many times, even though the specific document subject to a vote had not.
“I think it’s been talked about and talked about so long,” he said. “I knew where I stood when the vote came to the floor.”
But a representative of an organization that works with West Side residents on air-quality issues said she had tried to learn more about the agreement from state, city and Council officials in the week before it was voted on but was unsuccessful.
“We spent a week calling the offices, … and everyone was being evasive about it,” said organizer Natasha Soto of the Clean Air Coalition.
During an April 25 meeting of the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority, two state officials, including Authority Chairman Sam Hoyt, discussed how the project would win support. The comments, revealed this week by The Buffalo News, were captured in an audio recording of the meeting obtained under the Freedom of Information Law by an environmental group.
Maria C. Lehman, the state’s Peace Bridge project manager, talked about how the state had worked with Council members, including Pridgen, Rivera and Majority Leader Demone A. Smith, to approve making Fourth Street one-way, and were expecting the same cooperation on the state’s Gateway Connections project, which links the Peace Bridge to the northbound lanes of I-190.
The state was able to make the Fourth Street project part of many other projects, which obscured it, Lehman said.
All three lawmakers said there was never any arrangement as described by Lehman.
“Talking about bundling properties, not allowing the public to know, I have never been in that conversation,” Pridgen said.
To move the Gateway Connections project along, a document from the state Department of Transportation was submitted by city officials to the Council on July 21 that allows the state to take a portion of Baird Drive in Front Park through a process similar to eminent domain, and pay the city $431,925. The same agreement calls on the city to pay up to $456,991 for improvements to the area.
North Council Member Joseph Golombek Jr. objected to the document July 22 on grounds that it was filed too late. Because Golombek objected, it was not voted on that day, or sent to a committee for further consideration. On July 29, Smith gathered six signatures from his colleagues to waive a 24-hour notice requirement and call a special session to vote on it and other items.
“This was the final document, and it needed to be done by September,” Smith said. “There was no attempt by this Council to do anything nefarious or anything unethical.”
Special sessions to deal with urgent items before the Council’s August recess are common, Smith said.
The agreement with the state DOT passed, 8-1. Golombek voted no.
State transportation officials attended Council meetings in support of the project but were not called on by Council members to speak.
Rivera, who has supported the Gateway Connections project, said that because the state was taking the land through a process similar to eminent domain, the city didn’t have much say in the matter, though the agreement does afford the city some compensation. “We voted to receive the amount the city and state agreed to,” he said.
The Peace Bridge project already has a rocky relationship with some neighbors and community organizations, and Rivera said he was disappointed in Hoyt’s statement on the recording that people who became supporters of the project were “brainwashed – no, worked closely with, nudged.”
“For him to say this diminishes public trust in the project,” Rivera said.
Delaware Council Member Michael J. LoCurto said he won’t be voting for any late-filed item on the Peace Bridge that doesn’t go to committee for discussion first.
“If they’re trying to sneak things by the Common Council, they’re treating us like a bunch of dupes,” LoCurto said.
Peace Bridge neighbors are offended, Soto said.
“State agencies are cutting backroom deals while our residents are suffering with asthma and other respiratory illnesses,” she said.
The Clean Air Coalition opposes the project because it does not believe that it will improve air quality around the bridge, where residents suffer from higher rates of asthma and other respiratory diseases.
Opposition to all bridge projects by some groups is well-known, Hoyt said Thursday. “There wasn’t any attempt to suppress information,” he said. “We did everything by the book, by the law, but there was a decision not to send out press releases or otherwise because it simply wasn’t necessary.”
Thursday morning, a leading Canadian member of the authority that governs the Peace Bridge also objected to Hoyt’s comments.
“It’s unfortunate that the characterizations represented in the article are what they are, but they don’t reflect those of the majority of this board,” said Vice Chairman Anthony M. Annunziata.
Hoyt should make clear when he speaks that he is also a state official, Annunziata said during a meeting of the bridge authority.
The Gateway Connections project is led by the DOT, though the bridge authority has voted unanimously in favor of land deals to allow it to move forward.
Peace Bridge Authority board member Anthony M. Masiello said he stood by what he said April 25, which included a suggestion that the state promote its Gateway Connections project. “I actually stand by my comments,” Masiello, a former Buffalo mayor said, adding that the authority’s project to widen the bridge approach would improve traffic flow. “What we’re doing here on this board is the absolute right thing to do for both sides of that border to promote tourism, to promote economic development.”
A recording of the April 25 meeting was first obtained by PEER, or Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.