Transparency, infrastructure and crime are common themes in this year’s North Tonawanda elections.
Every seat, including mayor and town attorney, is being contested, with the Democrats trying to unseat the mostly Republican incumbents.
Democratic candidates have complained about transparency in city government, suggesting short meetings with no public discussion by Common Council members make it seem like the city is being run under a rubber stamp or back-door decision-making system.
However, a number of Republican candidates note that they meet every week and that all meetings, including workshops, are open to the public. Agendas are posted online. Both sides agree that addressing crime is an issue, but they disagree about what should be done about it.
Republican incumbent Robert G. Ortt, 34, of D’Angelo Drive, is seeking his second four-year term. He served in the New York Army National Guard and was deployed to Afghanistan in 2008. Ortt had been a financial planner and was the city’s clerk/treasurer for two years before being elected mayor.
He said he kept his campaign promises by reducing the size of city government by 17 percent and holding the line on taxes for the past three years. He said he did it without major layoffs, instead using attrition and consolidation. He also said he has improved the city’s infrastructure, repairing and repaving 35 miles of streets over the past three years.
“None of us were installed. The people of North Tonawanda have voted, and in some cases returned, us to office because of the progress we have made,” Ortt said. “At the local level, it’s about finding solutions that move the city forward. There are no Republican streets or Democratic streets.”
He is being challenged by Democrat Janet B. Zehr, 73, of Sweeney Street, a retired North Tonawanda Middle School science teacher, who retired in 2001 after 28 years with the district. Zehr has been the vice chairwoman of the North Tonawanda Democratic Party for the past two years and ran unsuccessfully for Common Council in 2009 and Niagara County legislator in 2011.
“North Tonawanda is all one party, there’s not a single Democrat in City Hall,” she said. “I think we need some changes, and changes should start at the top.”
She added that there should be some balance and more discussion. “Meetings are about 10 minutes long, and it seems like they have everything figured out before they come to the meeting,” she said.
Zehr also said taxes are too high, adding, “A lot of people who are retired and on pensions are struggling to keep up.” She also suggested making the mayor a part-time position, something that Ortt called “intellectually dishonest” because it was a Democratic Council that changed the City Charter to make the position full time.
Alderman at large
Republican incumbent Robert J. Clark, 68, of Porter Avenue, was appointed on Aug. 1 to complete the term of Nancy Donovan, who retired early. Clark, a 1963 graduate of North Tonawanda High School, is a decorated veteran of both the Vietnam and the Iraq wars. He spent 40 years in the Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force as an active-duty hospital corpsman, reservist and medic.
“What I offer is 40 years of military leadership, strategic planning and tactical applications to problem-solving,” Clark said. “My platform is like every other candidate. I want to see economic development. I want to see cultural renaissance and, for me, I want North Tonawanda to be a city that young families want to move back in and to open schools, rather than close them.
He is being challenged by Democrat Beverly A. Loxterman, 61, of Sweeney Street, retired after 37 years as a staff member of the Niagara County District Attorney’s Office. This is her first run for public office.
“I’ve been listening to what people are concerned with, and I would like to address our taxes and water bills, public safety and the infrastructure – roads and sidewalks,” Loxterman said. “We’ve had an all-Republican government, and I think we need a bipartisan city council for the people to show that we can all work together for the betterment of North Tonawanda.”
1st Ward alderman
Incumbent Philip “Russ” Rizzo, 80, of Williams Avenue, is an Independent who caucuses with the Republicans. Rizzo has served for 10 years as alderman, as well as two years as a Niagara County legislator.
He points to successes in securing funding to address Witmer Road flooding and success in revitalizing Gratwick Riverside Park.
“I was in the office products business for 25 years,” Rizzo said. “The only way to achieve in that type of business is personal service. I’ve carried that over to my constituents in the First Ward. I go and look at the problem, I discuss it with the constituent and help solve the problem.”
He is being challenged by Democrat David P. Kelly, 48, of Oliver Street, a physical education teacher in the Buffalo Public Schools for 22 years. Kelly is a newcomer to city politics. He served on the executive committee for the Buffalo Teachers Federation for four years.
“I think we need people in positions to be proactive. I’ve been involved in North Tonawanda, in one way or another, for 35 years. I went to school in North Tonawanda, and my son is in the school district. I find that a lot of the time, people are doing patchwork jobs on the infrastructure, on the business aspect, on the community aspects of North Tonawanda,” he said.
2nd Ward alderman
City Council President Richard Andres is leaving his 2nd Ward seat to run for Niagara County Legislature. The race will feature two newcomers – Republican Donna L. Braun, 54, of Lincoln Avenue, and Democrat Lisa M. Spencer, 36, of Hagen Avenue.
Braun, a support staff supervisor for Health Management Systems in Buffalo, is completing a three-year term on the North Tonawanda School Board.
“I truly love the city of North Tonawanda and the community, and I want to keep it going in the right direction,” Braun said. “I would really like to see things happening in the downtown area.”
Spencer is a stay-at-home mother with two children. She said that public safety is a key issue and that she would like to see more police officers on the street. “North Tonawanda has been going downhill,” she said. “I think I noticed it when I started having children. I wouldn’t walk down Oliver Street at night, and that’s not the NT I knew.”
3rd Ward alderman
Republican incumbent Eric Zadzilka, 44, of Fairmont Avenue, is seeking a third three-year term against challenger and political newcomer Darlene E. Bolsover, 40, of Sweeney Street.
Zadzilka is a certified ophthalmological assistant and a licensed optician for a doctor in Williamsville. “I just want to continue to work hard,” he said. “My focus is on the progress and moving the city forward. I think NT at some point could be used as a model for other cities to follow on some of the good works that are soon to come and have already been accomplished.”
Bolsover, a lifelong city resident, is a staff sergeant in the U.S. Army Reserve and a licensed practical nurse. Currently a stay-at-home mother, she is seeking her first political office but has been an active community member, serving as treasurer and president of the North Tonawanda Parent Teacher Association. “I would really like improvements in North Tonawanda,” she said. “I think crime throughout the city is a problem. I think with what the residents pay in taxes, they should not have to be in fear of the criminal element.”
Republican incumbent Shawn Nickerson, 47, of Wheatfield Street, is being challenged by Democrat Joshua E. Dubs.
Nickerson has been a practicing attorney for 21 years, with 13 years of experience in the City Attorney’s Office. He had been assistant city attorney until 2005, when he took over as the city’s top lawyer.
“Experience, experience, experience. I can’t stress that enough,” said Nickerson. He said that since he has taken office, he had brought in $2.75 million through annual reviews of the tax in rem foreclosure program, working with owners who have fallen behind on their taxes before proceeding with foreclosure. Nickerson said that as attorney he was responsible for having Gratwick Riverside Park transferred to the city in 2010, fought lawsuits that opposed Walmart and cut through the bureaucratic red tape with CSX railroad and property owners to gain easements that allowed the city to extend Meadow Drive.
Dubs is a general practice attorney in Buffalo and said he has dealt with real estate, housing court, civil litigation and criminal defense. He ran unsuccessfully for 3rd Ward alderman two years ago.
“The primary reason I am running for office is that I have been dedicated to public service for my entire career,” he said. “I’d like to try to help develop a housing court to work with the judges in the city and the housing task force to address some of the blight issues. The blight drives down property values, and they are all violations of city code, which I would like to see more rigidly enforced.”