Tonawanda Town Board meetings are never racked by acrimonious debate, gridlock or grandstanding. Unlike towns with split boards, votes on resolutions in Tonawanda are almost always unanimous, and discourse among the five Democrats is civil.
But critics of the town’s current elected officials say that harmony has come at a price – a lack of transparency and openness.
“Unfortunately, right now, we are living in a town controlled by a political monopoly,” Michael R. Vishion said last week at “Meet the Candidates Night” sponsored by the Ken-Ton Chamber of Commerce and the Kenmore Merchants Association. “They control the information, and they can manipulate it any way they see fit. We have no way of knowing differently.”
Vishion joins fellow Republicans Ann Morelli and Gigi E. Grizanti in trying to crack that Democratic lock Tuesday by challenging John A. Bargnesi Jr., Lisa M. Chimera and Joe Emminger as they seek their third four-year terms. The post pays $19,467 annually.
The race had been a relatively quiet affair until a controversial endorsement by the town’s police union.
The incumbents deny Vishion’s assertion and say they’re running on their records of making tough decisions to benefit town residents such as managing state-mandated sewer and water projects.
“It’s a message of strong public safety, fiscal responsibility, economic development and low taxes,” Emminger said. “Isn’t that what everybody wants? Those four things?”
The three Democrats present a united front, often using “we” instead of “I” in taking credit for their achievements.
“You can watch certain board meetings – and I won’t name towns – and they’re bickering, their meetings go all night, they’re back-and-forth playing politics and all that nonsense,” said Bargnesi, 46, owner of a landscaping business. “This job is too hard to do as an individual. You have to have a team.”
The Republicans are not as united. Ken-Ton Republican Committee Chairman Mark Tramont positions his candidates as “three independent thinkers.”
“Our messages are similar, but they’re not identical,” said Grizanti, 51, a self-employed human resources consultant.
Grizanti, who made an unsuccessful bid for Town Board in 2009, pointed to her two minor party lines – Conservative and Independence – and other endorsements as evidence of her “cross-party appeal.”
Bargnesi and Emminger also have the Conservative lines, while Morelli and Chimera have the Independence lines. The three Democrats appear on the Working Families line.
But the challengers do agree on at least one idea: The town needs a system of checks and balances.
“It’s not all rainbows and butterflies,” Grizanti said.
Tonawanda knows something about political monopolies.
Democrats in 2007 completed a stunning takeover in the political composition of the Town Board, which, for decades earlier, had been run entirely by Republicans.
The seeds of change were planted in a 2000 special election, when Daniel J. Crangle became the first Democrat elected in decades.
He went on to win a full term in 2003, and was joined in 2005 by Bargnesi, Chimera and Emminger. The final pieces fell into place in 2007, when Anthony F. Caruana was elected town supervisor, and Melissa Brinson won the town clerk’s office, which is now held by Marguerite Greco.
Some political watchers said a takeover by Democrats was only a matter of time in a town where the party holds a significant enrollment advantage and Republicans were putting up lackluster candidates. Today there are 22,366 Democrats and 15,734 Republicans out of 50,442 registered voters, according to figures from the Erie County Board of Elections.
With three out of five seats on the Town Board up for grabs Nov. 5, Republicans could gain a toehold, remain shut out completely or gain a majority.
Vishion, 37, a Navy veteran who turned his experience as a supply and budget manager into a consulting and sales business, went on the attack during “Meet the Candidates Night” criticizing the town’s one-party rule with charges of nepotism and cronyism.
“I will make sure that our board works for each and every resident, and not just those that can provide me some sort of political benefit,” he said. “This town has had enough of that behavior.”
But Emminger, in addressing the crowd later, wouldn’t take the bait. Instead, he referenced a line on Grizanti’s campaign website: “We need to accentuate the vast benefits of the town’s low taxes, exceptional services, youth sports and community values.”
“I could not have said it better, and that’s from one of my opponents saying this,” said Emminger, 54, a partner in a real estate appraisal company. “We do have low taxes, exceptional services, youth sports programs that the community values.”
In their responses on candidate questionnaires prepared by The Buffalo News, the challengers noted what they perceive as the biggest issue facing the town.
Grizanti said it was a declining tax base and population. Morelli, 47, a financial controller for a private company in Elma, and Vishion, who lost to Crangle in his first bid for town board in 2011, said it was public safety and quality-of-life issues.
“I attended community watch meetings over the summer and I learned that nuisance crimes are a major concern to our residents,” Morelli said in the statement. “Increasing our police patrols to combat those crimes and prevent more serious criminal activity is very important.”
Charges and countercharges in the race really only started flying after the Town of Tonawanda Police Club entered the political arena for the first time in its history in early October. The group endorsed the three Republicans over what it said was staffing shortages and cut positions in the department.
“Please do not cloud that the essential issue we are dealing with here is public safety,” Police Club President Chris Kaiser told the board recently.
But the incumbents maintain the endorsements were made over the union’s unhappiness with contract and health insurance negotiations. They are careful not to criticize officers’ work while burnishing their support of public safety in the town.
“Let’s not forget the outstanding job that our policemen and firemen did in the Joe Hollywood incident,” Emminger said, referring to the Oct. 7 incident in which a man with a gun died in a fire he set to his home. “That was because of the training that they have received.”
“I will continue to make public safety a top priority,” said Chimera, 47, a teacher in the Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda School District. “I have worked closely with our police chief to ensure both top-notch safety in our community and in our schools.”
When Kaiser and union members turned out en masse at a recent Town Board meeting to express their concerns, Police Chief Anthony J. Palombo was adamant that the town is safe.
“For anybody to imply that our citizens are not safe, or they’re not safer than they have been over the last several years is irresponsible,” he told the board. “I stake my reputation on it.”
The other town race is for highway superintendent, a position currently held by William E. Swanson.
Swanson, a 38-year veteran of the town’s Highway Department who rose through the ranks from foreman, pointed to achievements such as reducing the department’s budget by $540,000, joint projects with Erie County, the Village of Kenmore and City of Buffalo and the town’s purchase of its own road miller. “Now we mill and pave our own streets,” he said. “We don’t have to depend on anybody else to do that with us.”
He faces Russ Riggio, a blacksmith in the Erie County Highway Department who has also worked for his father’s construction business and acts as grievance chairman for AFSCME 1095.
“With these three background areas I think I bring a lot to the table,” he said.