Before Barry A. Weinstein joined the Amherst Town Board in 2008, its meetings had a reputation as contentious free-for-alls that would carry on until well after midnight.
“My patients would come in the office in those days and tell me they were watching the Town Board on TV for entertainment value,” said Weinstein, a retired family physician.
At his first meeting as a councilman, he put a stop to it.
“I said the meeting is over and they said no it’s not,” Weinstein recalled. “The rules of order say the meeting is over at 11 o’clock. You can’t conduct any more business unless you have unanimous approval. I’m putting on my shoes and going home.”
That story might epitomize the Weinstein decade in Amherst government and a legacy he sums up as “efficient governance.”
During two years on the board and eight as supervisor of Erie County’s most populated town, the pragmatic Weinstein kept taxes down, shrunk the number of departments and presented himself as the fiscal conservative leader of the town.
After a total of 34 years in public service, Weinstein is preparing for his departure this month from Town Hall, an exit mandated by term limits.
“The most common question is what are you going to do next?” Weinstein, 73, said during a wide-ranging, 1½-hour interview in his mostly cleaned-out office. “I have no plans.”
Other than spending the winters in North Carolina, close to one of his four daughters, that is. A New Rochelle native, the 1969 graduate of the University at Buffalo’s Medical School closed his family medical practice last year.
“To Amherst voters I would say thank you,” he said. “I have really appreciated the opportunity. I’ve really enjoyed myself. I’ve done the best I could for Amherst residents. I think it shows.”
Enter Weinstein’s office for an interview, and he’s ready to hand over 2½ typed pages of accomplishments in bullet points.
Elected as a Republican but now a registered Conservative, Weinstein ran the town and the Town Board pretty much at will for his first six years as supervisor, until the Democrats took a 3-2 majority in 2015.
"The first six years as supervisor I was a dreamer,” he said. “I implemented everything I could think of."
In those years, Weinstein gained a reputation as one who liked to privatize or outsource the operation of town-owned facilities, including the Audubon Golf Course, Buffalo Niagara Heritage Village and compost facility.
He’s quick to recall dollar figures on any issue, relishing savings he achieved through some deal or negotiation.
“We went to self-insured health insurance. I led the push. We saved millions,” he said, lingering on “millions.”
But being in the minority doesn’t suit Weinstein, who is also an attorney and developer. Proposals to bring in revenue for parks by installing cell towers were rejected.
“I’ve accomplished very little in the last two years,” he said.
It’s a familiar lament to Ramona D. Popowich, a Democrat who has known Weinstein for 30 years and served the last four with him on the Town Board.
“That’s a political response,” she said. “I don’t know if he really, truly believes that.”
They did find common ground this year on the Solarize Amherst initiative, which she describes as “a good foundation for energy conservation in the town.”
“He’s always listened to me,” Popowich said. “Have we always agreed? No.”
Asked how the average Amherst resident is better off now than when he took over, Weinstein points to the tax levy, the amount raised by property taxes.
“They went eight years without a tax increase,” he said. “The taxes in 2010 are the same as now. Everything else has gone up in cost.”
Amherst for years had a reputation as being welcoming, perhaps overly welcoming, to development. Weinstein said officials are taking a harder look at projects these days.
“It appears that at one point everything would be approved,” he said. “That’s not the case anymore. We’re becoming more concerned about over-development.”
Mensch Capital Partners bought the former Westwood Country Club property 5 1/2 years ago and Weinstein leaves office with that proposed housing project still in limbo, without a final resolution for the developer or the neighborhood opponents. But he said that’s to be expected.
“Westwood being 5 ½ years is nothing out of the ordinary for a project or proposal as big as this,” he said.
A series of potential blockbuster land swaps between the town and Mensch Capital created buzz several years ago but negotiations fell through.
“They weren’t flexible enough,” Weinstein says flatly, calling the swap “ancient history.”
The incoming Town Board members, however, have said they would like to revisit a swap so the town can obtain the Westwood land and transform it into a park.
As the town enters its bicentennial in 2018, new leadership will take over. Williamsville Mayor Brian J. Kulpa and two other Democrats will join the five-member board, giving Democrats complete control of the board for the first time anyone can remember.
Weinstein said he and Kulpa have “mutual respect,” having cooperated on trash and recycling bids and other projects.
“If he can get the grants he got for the village, he might be able to translate that into fixing up older areas,” Weinstein said.
Weinstein looks back proudly on a career in public service that began in 1982 with his election to the Williamsville School Board. He advocated for capital projects, all-day kindergarten and cultural diversity, among other issues.
“We built the Williamsville Central School District up into a powerhouse district, the best in Western New York,” he said.
Beginning in 1998, he served 10 years in the county Legislature, but grew tired of having no clout in a Republican minority of three in the 15-member chamber. He thought he could do more at the town level, especially with the circus atmosphere and bickering he saw.
Amherst is “not a laughingstock anymore,” he maintains now.
'No one gets all the votes'
He ends the interview with a story that shows how he’s mellowed in recent years.
In 2001 he faced his first opponent for re-election to the Legislature, and won with 10,000 votes to his opponent’s 5,000.
“I was almost distraught,” he said. “How could 5,000 people vote against me? What did they want me to do? I got over it though.”
He won 15 elections over his 34 years, but can’t recall the vote totals from his most recent election in 2013.
“I grew up,” he said. “You mature. As a politician, you become more realistic. No one gets all the votes.”
Several days later, Weinstein gave the invocation prior to his final Town Board meeting, one that was appropriate for the holiday season:
“You can also make a difference by being aware of those around you and their needs, by wanting to change those things in our world that need changing. By making a friend, by doing a favor, helping the less fortunate, by volunteering, by sharing a meal, by smiling and most importantly by being nice.”