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The question of just who Lancaster’s new town justice will be is dominating the town’s political landscape much more than many would have imagined.

The hard-fought campaign features Democratic candidate Mark S. Aquino, a homegrown Lancaster man, and Republican Anthony J. Cervi, a Lancaster High School graduate who grew up in south Cheektowaga.

In other communities, the races for town board or supervisor have captured voters’ attention. But in Lancaster, both sides of the political aisle are closely watching the duel for the seat now held by Democratic Town Justice J. Michael Kelleher, who is retiring after 38 years on the bench.

Aquino, 50, is a 22-year veteran attorney who has been a defense lawyer and former village prosecutor, and also serves as a Lancaster town councilman and Depew’s village attorney. He touts a wealth of experience inside and outside the courtroom, along with a strong municipal background.

Fighting just as hard for the four-year post that pays $41,884 a year is Cervi, 42, who has specialized in criminal and civil litigation and family law for more than a decade. He is calling attention to his record as a combat veteran, having served with the U.S. Army during Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm.

Aquino doesn’t hold back on what he would bring to the bench.

“I come from a middle-class background. I’m a salt-of-the-earth guy,” Aquino said. “When I put the robe on, I’m not going to be a pompous judge.”

Aquino is running on the Democratic, Independence and Working Family lines, and talks up his legal experience. He has his own practice.

Cervi, the Republican and Conservative parties’ candidate, has his own law practice as well, and says he is dedicated to practicing law and not being stretched too thin in his responsibilities.

Cervi – who lost a bid years ago for Cheektowaga town justice and is a former Maryvale School Board member – says his dedication to his law practice sets him apart from his opponent.

“Because of my strong work ethic, legal and personal background, I believe those have made me well suited to be the next town judge,” Cervi said. “My business is the practice of law, and I have focused on the practice of law for 11-plus years.”

Family roots for both Cervi and Aquino run deep in Lancaster, and both insist they are the best qualified to serve on the bench.

Even so, name recognition and popularity will no doubt play a factor, political observers say. Both attorneys have led aggressive door-to-door campaigns for weeks and have plastered their signs throughout town.

They also are spending a fair amount of money getting their names and messages out to voters.

Cervi has raised $10,797, spending $10,527 of it so far – though he refused to discuss his campaign spending. Aquino, to date, has shelled out $7,120 of the $13,753 he has raised for the race, according to the most recent campaign financial disclosure reports.

A censure action

The race sizzles with chatter about Aquino being censured in June 2012 by the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court for misappropriating $2,500 that was part of a debt collection matter that had been forwarded to him by opposing counsel.

Aquino was accused of commingling the money in his law firm’s operating account, and from June 2007 through August 2010 the balance for the account was consistently less than $2,500.

It’s a matter that Aquino doesn’t shy away from discussing. He apologizes for the error and says he paid the money back, plus $1,000 in interest.

“It certainly wasn’t something I wanted to happen. I don’t consider it baggage. It’s one isolated incident in 20-plus years,” Aquino said of the censure action. “When you practice for over 20 years in any job, you make a mistake. It was an honest mistake.”

“Once I found out about it, I clearly made amends,” said Aquino, also a former Lancaster village clerk-treasurer. “I didn’t give it to anybody. The problem was because my account dipped below $2,500 over five years, and they called it commingling. There was no intent to take the money. I didn’t say ‘bye bye’ and go build a house in Orchard Park.”

As a result of the censure, Cervi is emphasizing the issue of character in his campaign. “I am aware of him being censured by the Appellate Division. I believe the decision speaks for itself, and speaks to his character,” Cervi said of Aquino. “If someone were to read it, they could understand why that could be a concern.”

A 50-year resident

Aquino believes his experience makes him the stronger candidate in the race and allows him to monitor the community’s pulse. “I’ve lived in this community for 50 years. It gives me a perspective that (Cervi) may not have,” Aquino said. “I just have more experience. You shouldn’t learn this on the job.”

Aquino wants to expand the town court’s drug treatment program, which he says has been successful. He said he also wants to start a housing court to address dilapidated, abandoned and foreclosed properties to preserve neighborhoods and ensure that property values remain intact.

“I can see it becoming a bigger problem in Lancaster and Depew, with absentee landlords and maintenance issues,” Aquino said, noting he has experience with Buffalo’s housing court. “We don’t want to be left with dilapidated properties.”

Aquino said his experience as a defense lawyer and prosecutor gives him a unique perspective. “I have the perspective of when you’re being challenged. This (town court) isn’t a court of retribution,” he said. “ I can feel for the ‘other side.’ ”

Meanwhile Cervi, a resident for about seven years, said he’s running because he is the best-qualified person. “I’ve worked very hard in practice to be an effective attorney,” he said. “I’ve learned the law that would come before me as town justice, and have learned it well.”

Focused on his practice

Cervi said Aquino has various business interests, indicating he could be spread too thin. “Between the two of us, my business is the practice of law. And that’s my focus on a daily basis, and I think that’s key,” Cervi said.

Cervi said he wants to effectively communicate to voters his message and track record. “The important thing is for me to give residents a feel for who I am and my credentials,” he said. “I believe character is very important for residents in deciding who would be the best judge.”

“As a legal professional, family man and resident of this town, I have exhibited good and moral character. As the next Lancaster town judge, I would examine each case closely and individually to uphold justice, and protect the residents of our town,” Cervi said.

Whoever is elected could be joined by another new town justice.

The other seat on the Lancaster bench, which is now held by Democrat Mark A. Montour, could become open. Montour is running for State Supreme Court justice against Republican Paul B. Wojtaszek.

Should Montour win the election, the Town Board, which is controlled by Democrats, would appoint a successor for one year.

email: krobinson@buffnews.com