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Depew’s mayor is on defensive over hiring

Shortly after taking office as Depew’s new mayor, Jesse C. Nikonowicz hired his daughter as the village’s new administrator at a yearly salary of $55,000.

Nikonowicz had sole control over the appointment of his daughter, Maureen T. Jerackas, as the new administrator, though the Village Board essentially rubber-stamped the appointment.

Nikonowicz, along with two new trustees, unseated the Preservation Party in the March election. Their party, the Renew Depew Party, was largely backed by the village Fire Department and had run on a campaign platform promising transparency and fresh blood in village government, as well as better communication with residents.

Asked about his hiring of his daughter, Nikonowicz defended the decision and not recusing himself from the vote.

“I went with my daughter because I knew my daughter was perfectly capable. I knew my daughter could be both loyal and do what needed to be done,” the mayor said. “We didn’t hire some schmuck.”

Trustee Linda M. Hammer, the lone board member from the opposing Preservation Party that backed the previous administration, said she called the hiring of Nikonowicz’s daughter “inappropriate.”

“It’s your first meeting, and you’re appointing your daughter. It didn’t seem right,” Hammer said. “She may be a nice person, but …”

Hammer continued: “I think it’s improper, and I don’t think the mayor should have appointed his daughter to the position. Hammer was on vacation when the daughter’s appointment came before the board during its April reorganization meeting. “I think it was wrong that he voted to confirm his daughter’s appointment. He should have recused himself. In my opinion, it was a conflict of interest.”

Nikonowicz acknowledged he did not abstain from the formal vote on the appointment.

“She was the top candidate. I didn’t abstain. But I abstained already from the decision-making process,” he said.

The position, formerly held by longtime Administrator Elizabeth C. Melock, who submitted her resignation once the Preservation Party candidates lost the election, was advertised in the local newspapers and drew “a lot of responses,” the mayor said.

Nikonowicz said that he didn’t participate in the interviewing process and acknowledged that his daughter did not have municipal administration experience. Nikonowicz said he cut the heading off the top of his daughter’s résumé and showed it to Melock to ask her if she thought the person was qualified, and he said she indicated that she would consider that person.

But Hammer raised the issue of Jerackas’ lack of municipal work. Hammer was excluded from the process to select an administrator because she is not part of the Renew Depew Party. Still, Nikonowicz described his daughter as “the most qualified out of the candidates for what we were looking for,” he said. “She’s the best person for the job, and the results are showing it.”

Nikonowicz said it initially “wasn’t a game plan to hire my daughter.” He said that his party did not plan to replace Melock and that he tried to change her mind, but she told him “absolutely not,” he said. “We (the Renew Depew Party) were caught totally off-guard” that she would resign, he said.

His daughter, Jerackas, could not be reached to comment. At $55,000 a year, she is earning significantly less than Melock, who was paid about $100,000 as administrator, clerk-treasurer and to oversee public works operations. Jerackas is not doing the public works role.

The deputy mayor last week appointed Philip A. Fleck as public works superintendent with a $66,000 yearly salary. He has been a village mechanic and worked for DPW for 15 years, the mayor said.