Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz on Thursday called his relationship with Legislature Chairman John J. Mills “ruined” after Mills released a private voicemail from Poloncarz and accused the county executive of trying to “bribe” him by paving a road in his district in exchange for support on other matters.
In the voicemail, Poloncarz mentions $800,000 available to repave a major road in Mills’ district and also mentions his desire to speak with the Orchard Park Republican about several other issues of importance to him, including pending legislation and union contracts.
“That, to me, is a bribe,” Mills said. “He made the call to do this, and it was wrong.”
The Democratic county executive responded angrily, saying that his long-standing, working relationship with Mills has been damaged by the accusation.
Negotiation and compromise over county issues by legislators and the county executive are routine, Poloncarz said, adding that legislators do it just as frequently in his direction, holding up important matters of public health in exchange for promises of public works improvements in their districts.
“That’s horse trading,” Poloncarz said. “We horse trade all the time. If that can’t happen, there’s no governing because we have to negotiate to get things done, especially when it comes to the budget.”
Mills agreed that horse trading regularly happens between the county executive and members of the Legislature, but he called Poloncarz wrong to make him a specific offer of money to fix Boston Springville Road, in Mills’ 11th District, in exchange for Legislature approvals on other issues. “That’s where he crossed the line,” Mills said.
Poloncarz said he has nothing to hide and committed no “dastardly deed.”
Poloncarz replayed the voicemail for a Buffalo News reporter. In it, he mentions the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees blue-collar union and Erie County Medical Center.
Poloncarz tells Mills: “I know you’ve got a number of things to talk on, not the least of which is the charter, but I want to talk about AFSCME, I want to talk about ECMC borrowing, and also roadwork.
“You saw the letter that was sent over by Loffredo,” Poloncarz continued in the voicemail, referring to Public Works Commissioner John C. Loffredo. “We have about $800,000 that’s not allocated right now for roadwork. As I said to you before, I can do Boston Springville Road, but I want key commitments on a couple things, then I’ll sign over that stuff to get that road done. Give me a call when you get a chance.”
Mills said that $800,000 had been committed for repaving of Boston Springville Road four months ago by the Department of Public Works.
Poloncarz said that he doesn’t save personal voicemails from legislators asking him to consider their various pet projects in exchange for their support on other issues, but that he receives such requests regularly. When the county executive sought the release of money to boost his efforts to prevent lead poisoning or respond to the opioid crisis, he said, legislators wanted commitments from him to pave their district roads first.
He also said Mills previously promised to sign off on one of his appointments to the Erie County Industrial Development Agency but went back on his word in an attempt to pressure him to do the Legislature’s bidding.
“This has had a serious, negative impact on my ability to trust the Legislature and negotiate in good faith,” the county executive said.
Poloncarz also said that at this point, the outlook was dim for Boston Springville Road getting paved. He added that other county roads are in worse shape.
While the Republican-supported Legislature majority has generally worked collaboratively with Poloncarz, recent rifts have erupted in regard to Legislature’s charter-revision law, which would have made it possible for legislators to run for terms of four years instead of two. Poloncarz’s refusal to sign the law has kept the matter from going to referendum in November. Mills contends that Poloncarz went back on his verbal commitment.
Mills acknowledged that he had previously assured Poloncarz that he would give consideration to the county executive’s appointment to the Erie County IDA, after Poloncarz signed off on one of Mills’ appointments. But Mills said Thursday that he didn’t expect Poloncarz to try and appoint Francis G. Warthling, a former Lackawanna Democratic chairman. Mills called Warthling a “political hack” who accomplished little as a commissioner on the Erie County Water Authority.
Whether his relationship with the county executive remains irrevocably harmed depends on Poloncarz, said Mills. “I’m willing to continue to work with him,” he said. “It won’t be the same, but the bottom line is, I don’t take my marching orders from the county executive.”
Poloncarz said he believes that the actions taken by Mills are part of a bigger effort by the Erie County Republican Chairman Nicholas A. Langworthy to try to discredit him and lower his high approval ratings after he and the Legislature majority have successfully worked together in the last two years. “I’m really disappointed, to put it mildly,” Poloncarz said.
Meanwhile, Poloncarz’s voicemail has raised alarms with organizations such as AFSCME. Richard Canazzi, president of AFSCME Local 1095, said he and his members have been working to get the Legislature to intervene in stalled contract negotiations between their union and the county. He fears that the call from Poloncarz to Mills was an effort to dissuade the Legislature from getting involved.
“I don’t think that’s appropriate, if that’s what his intentions are,” he said. “My 1,500 members are not sacrificial lambs for horse trading.”