Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Donn Esmonde: Mayoral debate reminds us of Brown’s failings

Donn Esmonde: Mayoral debate reminds us of Brown’s failings

on August 24, 2013 - 5:27 PM
, updated August 24, 2013 at 5:47 PM

It was about time these guys teed off on Silent Byron.
His challengers blasted the mayor in Thursday’s debate for, among other things, staying on the sidelines as the battle raged over putting ECC’s new science building in the suburbs or downtown.
His mime act on ECC was typical. Brown’s failure to engage and a propensity to duck and cover is, to my mind, the enduring trademark of his administration. Passivity R Us.
The broadsides from Bernie Tolbert and Sergio Rodriguez won’t, judging by a recent poll, slow Brown’s march to a third term. But their call-out revives the burning question of Brown’s uninspiring tenure: What if?
What if he was a leader instead of a placeholder? What if he was a battler instead of a bystander? Proactive instead of passive? Passionate, instead of a passenger?
Brown looks like he stepped out of a Brooks Brothers ad, but he might as well wear an invisibility cloak, given his blue-moon infrequency for weighing in. The ECC fight is typical. The science building is suited for the City Campus, given its central location and proximity to the blossoming medical corridor. Despite that, county officials seem determined to build it on the North Campus.
The figure leading the charge for downtown is not the mayor, but ex-County Executive Joel Giambra. A checkered past makes Giambra a flawed flag-carrier, but at least he stood up and spoke out – unlike the man in the tailored suit.
Brown potentially has plenty of muscle, but – to the frustration of many – lacks the will, interest, vision or desire to flex it. As the African-American mayor of one of the nation’s poorest cities, he has the power to persuade and embarrass. Particularly with a Democratic governor who passed Brown over for the job as his right-hand man (in favor of another upstate mayor), who has presidential ambitions and who’s sensitive about his racial sensitivity.
Brown could do more good for Buffalo if he was as passionate about policy as he is about politics. The sad thing is, he gets away with it.
His consistent failure to take a stand or to lead a cause has conditioned people not to expect anything. Whether by circumstance or design, he has undeservedly been handed a No Accountability pass. Do Not Pass Go, Do Not Ask Byron. Silence may be golden for a CIA operative, but not when you run a poverty-battered, jobs-desperate city. Judging by a recent poll, Brown will coast to re-election.
Yet time and again, he is conspicuous by his absence.
Suburban school district superintendents recently swatted away talk of taking in city students from underperforming schools. It begged for at least a symbolic response from the city’s black mayor. Instead, silence.
State legislators last summer passed a historic tax credit bill. It would have made it easier to resurrect downtown buildings, notably the decades-empty AM&A’s. Andrew Cuomo befuddled many by not signing it into law. Brown was in a perfect position to turn up the heat. He never even ventured into the kitchen.
The historic tax credit issue has not gone away. A handful of mammoth older Buffalo buildings are empty, nearly empty or about to empty: AM&A’s, Statler Towers, Trico, Millard Fillmore – Gates Circle and Women & Children’s Hospital. Those are huge holes to fill. Where’s Waldo, er, Byron?
His bigger-picture myopia goes beyond a stunning failure to craft an anti-poverty plan. Then-legislator Maria Whyte pushed in vain a few years ago for a long-overdue regional planning board, to funnel business into the city. The issue begged for Brown to climb on board. He never saddled up.
I understand Brown’s broad appeal. He projects civility and concern. He crafted public policy out of community activists’ push for a long-overdue, streetscape-enhancing “green code.” He has hired bright, young planners and given them relatively free rein. The streets are plowed and the garbage is collected. Developers tell me it has gotten easier to do business with the city.
But his tenure is marked more by an absence on issues than a presence – and ECC is sadly typical. Brown could have championed the City Campus for the new science building, while blasting the ridiculous law that pits community colleges – which all are part of the same state system – against each other for students. Instead, he admittedly let ECC President Jack Quinn knock him off the scent. If can-do Congressman Brian Higgins had the same “hakuna matata” attitude about the waterfront, we’d still be wandering through weeds.
Judging by the polls, most voters believe that Brown is good enough. I think Buffalo deserves better. With Silent Byron, I can’t help but see the chasm between what is and what could be.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Mayoral candidates square off on ECC - August 22, 2013

Mayoral candidates square off on ECC

Brown finds himself on the defensive as his challengers vow to be more vocal on the issue of locating the college’s new science building downtownBuffalo’s mayoral candidates – from left, Mayor Byron Brown, Sergio Rodriguez and Bernard Tolbert – participate in forum sponsored by Parkside Community Association at St. Mary’s School for the Deaf.
Buffalo’s mayoral candidates – from left, Mayor Byron Brown, Sergio Rodriguez and Bernard Tolbert – participate in forum sponsored by Parkside Community Association at St. Mary’s School for the Deaf. Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News

on August 22, 2013 - 11:51 PM

    • Buffalo’s mayoral candidates – from left, Mayor Byron Brown, Sergio Rodriguez and Bernard Tolbert – participate in forum sponsored by Parkside Community Association at St. Mary’s School for the Deaf.


When opponents of Erie Community College’s plan to locate a new science-oriented instructional building in Amherst went to the Buffalo Common Council in July for a show of support, they got it.
At the time, Mayor Byron W. Brown did not speak publicly about the issue. But on Thursday, he said he does favor the expanded campus downtown.
Brown’s opponents, Democrat Bernard A. Tolbert and Republican Sergio R. Rodriguez, said that if elected, they would be more vocal advocates for locating the building in the city, where 47 percent of ECC students live.
Rodriguez criticized Brown for “feeling that way and not doing anything about it.”
“We need an involved administration,” Rodriguez said during a mayoral debate Thursday organized by the Parkside Community Association and held in St. Mary’s School for the Deaf.
Bus routes don’t adequately serve city students who want to attend classes on ECC’s North Campus, resulting in “second-class” students, Tolbert said.
“I am not in favor of ECC expanding in the North Campus,” Brown said Thursday. The new building should be built downtown, he added, noting the jobs that will be created on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, which would require skills taught at ECC.
“I think it makes all the sense in the world for ECC to build … in Buffalo,” Brown said.
When asked last week in an interview with The Buffalo News about whether he had advocated for the building to be located in the city, Brown said he spoke with ECC President Jack F. Quinn Jr. “a number of times” about plans for the building and that the message he received was that the college must compete with Niagara County Community College. Brown said he thought ECC could compete with its northern neighbor without locating in the suburbs.
The college is planning to open a new Science, Technology, Engineering and Math School at Main Street and Youngs Road in Amherst in 2017, a decision that has been endorsed by Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz. City officials do not have authority over the college’s decision.
The question about ECC was just one in an hourlong debate in which organizers prohibited applause after answers, making audience reaction to each candidate’s answers difficult to gauge.
Both challengers had sharp words for Brown, which he returned.
In his closing statement, Tolbert accused Brown of “systematically decimating our city and our people.”
Rodriguez accused Brown’s administration of “exaggerating about everything.”
Brown said his opponents have “no plan, no vision for the future. All they have is the desire to tear down Buffalo.”
Some of the answers the candidates gave were vague, or didn’t answer the question, while others reiterated campaign themes.
On a question about the future of the Scajaquada Expressway, a major issue in Parkside, Rodriguez acknowledged that he didn’t know much about it.
On a question about crime, Tolbert said government’s No. 1 responsibility is public safety and said his endorsement from police officers means they think he will make meaningful changes, but he did not elaborate.
Asked about what the candidates would do to address poverty, Brown said that with the economic-development activity in the city, he expects 5,000 to 11,000 jobs will be created.
Tolbert said that neighborhoods must be fixed and that the residents he speaks with aren’t seeing the benefit from the economic activity. To address the problem of hunger, he suggested opening up more vacant land for urban farming, while Brown talked up new efforts for job training, through the state’s regional economic-development council.
A question about the candidates’ plans for strengthening commercial corridors that aren’t doing well prompted Rodriguez to note the city’s population loss during Brown’s tenure and Tolbert to bring up problems with the Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corp., which led to its demise.
Brown responded, noting that his administration has cut the commercial tax rate by almost 28 percent and has offered small-business loans, and named Francesca’s restaurant in South Buffalo as an example. He noted that population loss has been going on since 1950, and that he is slowing the tide.
Brown and Tolbert face each other in a Sept. 10 primary.
Rodriguez will compete in the general election Nov. 5.