About 400 people called for the suspension of Buffalo Parks Commissioner Robert E. Delano at a candlelight vigil Wednesday evening at Delaware Park Lake that featured chants like "Dump the chump" and "No paid vacation."
The demonstrators carried signs and candles as they walked around the lake to show their outrage following accusations of misconduct against Delano and the Parks Department. They gathered near the casino at the lake's edge, where some parks employees say Delano told workers to dump road salt three years ago to prevent ice skating.
According to the workers, the salt was dumped because Delano was angered that the Common Council closed a concession stand the private Parks Social Club ran there.
"I don't think Mr. Delano has the right to kill wildlife in the lake, just because he didn't get his hot dog stand," said Chris Romus of Cheektowaga.
An environmental science major at Erie Community College, Romus was carrying a sign that read "Parks Are Eternal; Trouble Must Pass."
Others carried signs that read "You're skating on thin ice now" and "Don't dump rock salt, dump Delano and Griffin."
Meanwhile, workers in the department's park headquarters were told Wednesday that Delano is not stepping down from his job.
According to three parks workers, Edward Graci, a top Delano aide, called a meeting of Delaware Park staffers to tell them that media reports about Delano's plans to take a leave of absence were untrue.
"The workers were told that the mayor is standing behind the commissioner and all these news reports are completely false," one worker said.
Citizen Action, the group that organized the vigil, distributed petitions calling for Delano's suspension and the creation of a citizens committee to monitor the parks system.
"This thing with Delano has really gotten out of hand," Mark Vitrano of Citizen Action said as he was collecting signatures for the petitions.
A suspension of Delano would be the strong statement that is needed, Vitrano said, and a paid leave of absence would not be strong enough.
Vitrano was referring to reports Tuesday at City Hall that Mayor Griffin plans to place Delano on a paid leave until a federal grand jury completes its investigation of the Parks Department, reports that the mayor declined to confirm or deny.
The city's corporation counsel, Samuel F. Houston, said a paid leave would be legal.
Acting City Comptroller Michael McNamara said, however, that Delano could not be paid because he has an appointive job that is not covered by the union contract, which permits paid leaves.
"We are the ones to cut the check, and I'm not going to give this man a paycheck if he ends up on a leave of absence," McNamara said.
The acting comptroller sent a letter to Griffin late Wednesday informing him of his decision. McNamara said it was based on his interpretation of state and local laws regarding gifts to public officials.
"It is my considered opinion that a paid leave of absence to any appointed official constitutes such a gift or loan since the individual would no longer perform the duties and responsibilities for which he was hired," McNamara told Griffin.
McNamara also said he would fight any attempt by Griffin to give Delano an extended vacation.
The hourlong rally and walk around the lake took place without interference from parks workers or police, who had said a permit might be needed. Organizers said they had not obtained a permit from the city.
The crowd included parents with children, college students, professors, senior citizens, community leaders and some politicians.
"I, for one, am outraged at what is happening," said Benjamin Fiore, a Canisius College professor. The Parks Department "should be a service organization, not a fiefdom."
Fiore, who called Delaware Park his primary recreation area, said he joined others at the park Wednesday because the people have not been given a chance to speak on the issue.
"I don't think he's fulfilling his office," Fiore said of Delano.
"We are concerned citizens who believe there needs to be more accountability on the part of our public officials," said Ellen Kennedy, statewide president of Citizen Action.
"Consider it a rehearsal for some petition-signing in July to dump the boss," said Tim Tielman, editor of the Sharp Review and a member of Friends of Olmsted Parks, referring to the petition drive to oust Delano.
"There's an attitude that comes down from above that anything goes. It's this contempt for the public which we cannot tolerate, we cannot bear. When our opportunity comes in July to recall Griffin, we should all sign those petitions, because that is the beginning of the end," he said.
"It didn't start with Delano, and it's not going to end with Delano. As long as the Parks Department is treated as a patronage cesspool, this cancer will continue spreading throughout our city," Tielman added.
"Bringing the kids out -- it says it all there," Ellen Harry of North Buffalo said as she bent down to put mittens on her 2-year-old daughter, Meta Mandris.
Ms. Harry called the Parks Department situation unbelievable and said the mayor should have spoken out on the issue by now. "He's being the Jimmy Griffin we all know," she said.
On the leave-of-absence issue, Houston said Wednesday that the mayor has the power to grant a paid leave to a department head as long as it is not for an unreasonable amount of time.
Although the City Charter does not address the issue, Houston said he believed that the mayor's authority is an inherent power because it is an extension of his authority to hire and fire his executive assistants.
"The charter says department heads are appointed and serve at the pleasure of the mayor," Houston said. "As such, he could grant a paid leave of absence to a department head," he said.
McNamara said he disagreed with Houston because he believes Delano or any other appointed officials is hired to do a specific job. If that job is no longer being performed, there should be no pay.
McNamara said to continue paying Delano would be to reward him for poor management. The parks commissioner's performance was bad long before the recent allegations of wrongdoing surfaced, McNamara said.
"The last four audits conducted by this office on the Parks Department were very damning in their contents," he said. "They described wholesale incompetency and in some instances a lack of the paper trail our auditors depend on to fulfill their duties."
McNamara said Delano refused to discuss the situation after receiving the critical audits. He also would not accept suggestions from McNamara's office on ways to improve how money was managed in the Parks Department.
"When you repeatedly said this is wrong, you'd think they'd say what can we do to improve it," McNamara said. "They don't do it."