Relations among the five members of the City of Tonawanda’s Common Council have appeared outwardly cordial since the new council was seated at the beginning of the year.
But, now, the Council appears fractured and frustration is mounting. Last week, a majority of Council members took the unusual step of publicly stating they have “no confidence” in Council President Jenna N. Koch.
First Ward Councilman Charles Gilbert, 2nd Ward Councilwoman Jackie N. Smilinich and 3rd Ward Councilman Sean M. Rautenstrauch accused Koch of “continuous and most recent erroneous statements, misleading facts, failure to control meetings, participation and endorsement of special interest groups and violation of the council’s First Amendment rights,” according to a statement read aloud at the April 19 Council meeting.
The Council members added they have no confidence in Koch’s ability “to conduct business and represent the entire City of Tonawanda fairly and equitably.”
The “straw that broke the camel’s back,” according to Rautenstrauch, was a statement made by Koch at the Council’s previous meeting, on April 5.
“May I remind members of this Council who sits in this chair?” Koch said according to meeting minutes. “The secret meetings between other municipalities, between other businesses as far as having them come into our city, now cease. You are to email the Council of any meetings that you have pending. Perhaps we may have some questions for you.”
Koch “overstepped” her bounds with that statement, Rautenstrauch said this week.
“My understanding is, as Council president, she’s another Council member with a gavel,” he said. “She maintains collegiate decorum and order in the meetings. But as far as handing down demands, if she has accusations that she believes people have had secret meetings, I believe that needs to be taken up in a different venue.”
Koch said her comments “were taken out of context.”
“This is a complete misunderstanding,” she said. “I’ve tried to resolve it amongst the council and it’s sad that it has to be reported in the media.”
Koch, a Democrat, was elected in November as the council’s first new president in 20 years. Rautenstrauch and Smilinich, also Democrats, ran with her.
Rautenstrauch, Smilinich and Gilbert also took the unusual step last week of voting to abruptly adjourn the April 19 meeting after public comment. Each Council member and the mayor usually take turns making comments.
The “no confidence” statement is symbolic, but Rautenstrauch said he hopes it will lead to a resolution.
“It is drastic, admittedly,” Rautenstrauch said. “But I think there was some resistance of meeting with people. I think there was some denial of problems. I feel like this is unfortunately the only way we can push for a sit-down.”
Koch said she has reached out to the members and asked for a meeting but hasn’t heard back.
“We have more important issues to work through,” she said. “My hope is we will be able to come to some understanding.”