Despite a tempestuous four years peppered with bitter battles that cost him a second term as the city's chief executive, Mayor James C. Galie said he will leave office Dec. 31 with no regrets.
Galie, in fact, leaves feeling somewhat victorious. He says those who became his political archenemies -- namely his Democratic opponent, City Councilman John G. Accardo, his own Democratic Party and the fire unions -- haven't fared any better than he did. Accardo lost the general election. The Democrats lost the mayor's office and one Council seat. And, at least according to Galie, the firefighters' political activities have lost them so much public sympathy that their popular Niagara Falls Firefighters Christmas telethon failed to meet its goal for the first time.
"I'm tickled pink with the way the election turned out after I was not the candidate," Galie said. "I mean, you want to bare it all. I worked hard to get Irene Elia elected after I lost the primary. I thought that she would be a better candidate to follow me, a new face and new ideas. I didn't openly endorse her. I thought it was better to do it quietly."
Elia said she heard that Galie was supporting her quietly.
"There's no question in my mind that it worked," Galie said. "I would say that 90 percent of the people who voted for me or would have voted for me had I survived the primary, voted for Irene Elia. There's no question in my mind that made the difference and helped her get elected."
Accardo, however, thinks Galie is taking too much credit for the results of the November election.
"The thing I heard throughout was the need for change. I think that was based on a lot of things -- promises that weren't kept, turmoil at City Hall, lawsuits, firings. My feeling was I could give them a change with experience. They decided they wanted a complete change. I think that had more to do with it than any of Jim Galie's actions against me. I can't blame the voters for being unhappy with the way things were going. I was unhappy. That's why I ran. I don't have any ill feelings against anyone. That's politics," Accardo said. Richard L. Horn, president of Niagara Falls Uniformed Firefighters Local 714 and one of Accardo's key supporters, agreed with Accardo that the desire for change dominated the election. He said the final telethon figures aren't in yet, but he disputed Galie's claim that it was the firefighters' political activities that hurt the telethon.
"If it's down I think it's the sign of the poor economic condition of the city, and the mayor should take responsibility for that," Horn said. "I refuse to allow Mr. Galie to politicize the most productive and beneficial annual humanitarian event this city has ever seen."
Galie believes his problems with the Democratic machine stemmed from the fact that he always was more concerned with people than the party. He said his endorsement of Gov. George Pataki in 1998 was part of the problem. He said he endorsed the Republican governor because he believed it was the best thing for the city.
"Mayor (Anthony) Masiello did it a week after I did, and nothing happened," Galie said. "The (Erie County) chairman said he wasn't happy. Here, I was thrown out of the party, chastised and it was very public . . . . In the end, it cost them dearly. They lost the office."
Accardo said at least Buffalo got additional state aid out of Masiello's endorsement. He said Niagara Falls got nothing from Galie's.
Galie said he remains a registered Democrat and plans to stay one despite the party's public reproof. The party, he said, needs just one thing -- a new chairman. He said that since Nicholas J. Forster became the county party's boss, the Democrats have suffered significant losses throughout the county.
Forster said it's Galie's prerogative to be more concerned with people than the party. But, Forster said, Galie asked for the party's endorsement, saying he had been a party man all his life.
"So either he is or he's not," Forster said.
The Democratic chairman said it wasn't just Galie's inability to communicate with the party that defeated him. He said it was his inability to communicate with the people, the City Council and his inability to bring any meaningful development to a desperate city. And, he said, it wasn't just Galie's endorsement of a Republican governor and senator that strained his relations with the party.
"We like to sit at the table and bring the issues to the forefront and sort them out, not just lop everybody's head off. I don't want to rehash it. I want to go forward. It just keeps the fires burning. We wish him well," Forster said.
Galie says he's leaving with a smile and was relaxed and in good humor during a recent interview to discuss his term in office. He departed from his usual practice of having his city administrator and campaign chairman, Anthony J. Restaino, present and appeared eager to talk about the accomplishments -- and problems -- of his administration single-handedly. In a separate interview, Restaino cited many of the same accomplishments as Galie did.
"Four years later, I really believe my administration was a very positive administration," Galie said. "I think that I'm leaving the city to the new mayor in a much better position than it was when I took over on Jan. 1, 1996. Financially, the city is in a better position. It's in the black. I think that there's been major improvements in the city. I think our city is much cleaner than it was four years ago in many areas . . . I think there are solid signs of growth in the city."
Restaino agreed. "The city is in the black. It was in the red when we took office," he said. "We've already had one minor upgrade to the bond rating, and I was informed by (acting City Controller Sandra A. Peploe) on Thursday that it's probably looking good that sometime next year it will be upgraded again. I think that was as a result of our fiscal policies, which (were) basically to stay away from one-shot revenues in addition to the reductions that have been made over the four years."
Among the many accomplishments of his administration that Galie listed were improvements to the parks and Hyde Park Golf Course, the new golf and sports dome at Hyde Park, which was built by private investors and deeded to the city; the cleanup efforts of his Impact Team; and the explosion of the Block Club movement, which he said was aided by the support of the Police Department under his direction.
Galie and Restaino said the new high school could not have been built on city-owned property and the related reconstruction of Sal Maglie Stadium funded by the New York Power Authority could not have been accomplished without the city administration's support. Galie said the Pine Avenue-Little Italy project now under way had been stalled on the drawing boards prior to his becoming mayor.
And Restaino said the energy performance contract they entered into is allowing many city buildings to be upgraded, with the costs to be paid for through energy savings rather than by the taxpayers.
He and Restaino also point to about 1,000 new jobs at the TeleTech Holdings call center in the former Falls Street Station and the new state-of-the-art aquarium under construction on Rainbow Boulevard as achievements of their administration.
Elia, Accardo and Forster agree with some of the accomplishments Galie claims. Accardo agrees the golf course and parks are in better condition. Elia disagrees that the parks are as good as Galie says. But she says the city's move toward self-insured health care is the right direction and should be continued. She also says she is impressed with the city's Y2K computer readiness.
Though Forster believes Galie has more negatives than positives, he credited him with putting together a good team of department heads, including Ronald C. Shiesley, parks and public works director; Ralph F. Aversa, water director; and Police Chief Ernest C. Palmer. Firings and the defections of others, though, created fault lines, Forster said. Galie said that sort of thing happens everywhere. It was just blown out of proportion by the fire unions, he said.
Forster also listed bringing Niagara Falls Redevelopment to the table as a plus even though to date the promised development has not materialized.
That may be Galie's and Restaino's biggest disappointment. Galie welcomed the group headed by Toronto real-estate deal-maker Edwin A. Cogan with open arms. His administration negotiated a deal with the Cogan group that gave it options on 142 acres of urban renewal land and all of the public facilities west of the Convention and Civic Center, including the center itself, in return for at least $130 million in investment over eight years.
Thirty months later, despite NFR's claims that it has invested $7 million in studies, planning and in donations to the community, Galie openly admits he is disappointed. The group failed to meet the Dec. 17 deadline for getting its first $20 million in investment under way. The group exercised its option to take over management of the Convention Center with a lot of promises, but Galie said he doesn't see any improvement in bookings, events and operations over the previous 11 years when the center was operated by SMG, formerly Spectacor Management Group.
"(NFR) had me announce there would be a theater there during my tenure," he said, not stating the obvious that there is no theater downtown, although another developer, Benderson Development Co. did develop a 12-screen Regal Cinema near the I-190 during Galie's term.
Galie, who lobbied and worked in support of casino gambling, also is disappointed that it has not come to fruition. He doesn't believe NFR principals were totally forthcoming at the beginning about how essential gambling was to their plans.
Galie and Restaino still stand by one of their major decisions -- to privatize sanitation services. They say even with the cost of the lawsuits brought by the union and the final settlement that requires the city to return 13 of the laid-off employees to work, the city is ahead financially. Others, like Accardo, disagree. Restaino said there was another benefit, which might be the most lasting of the Galie administration's legacies.
"I think when it's all said and done, I think the people who get the service every day know that the privatization of sanitation is a better service, also providing for curbside recycling, which had not been in existence before 1997. But I think the whole thing brought into the consciousness the question of services provided and whether the city should be providing some of those services. It opened up examining services and the bigger question of 'should the city be providing them,' " he said.
Still, all of the parties involved agree that problems with the sanitation and fire unions and the City Council stem from the actions of the Galie administration in the first year. Galie says the single most important reason for his defeat is the fire unions' "ridiculous and untrue vendetta because I tried to reduce what I believe in my heart was overstaffing in the Fire Department." Galie said he offered the fire unions the chance to avoid layoffs by taking a pay cut and reducing the force through attrition.
"After November 1996, there was no room for working out an agreement. It was only on their conditions. I wouldn't do that. It's no secret they spent a ton of money to defeat me. That was unprecedented in the history of Niagara Falls politics," Galie said.
"If Mr. Galie would have dealt with city issues with integrity, honesty and facts, he wouldn't have had to worry about what we said," Horn said. "It's also unprecedented that a candidate spent $130,000 on two occasions for a $30,000-a-year job. The facts that we publicized were never questioned by the Galie administration."
Galie insists he was doing what was best for the city and denies criticisms that he has a "my way or the highway" or a "police" mentality, the latter a reference to his 31 years in the city Police Department, in which he rose to the position of second in command. Galie said the Council and unions just didn't realize how strong-willed and determined he is.
Accardo agrees with Galie's assessment that things went downhill after he reopened the budget on March 19, 1996. But Accardo said much of the problem was the way Galie reacted. Accardo, who was chairman of the Council at the time, said the Council approved about 85 percent of what Galie asked for.
"1996 was a turbulent time in the City of Niagara Falls," said Accardo. "Usually, one thing leads to another, and both sides react. I think it was unfair of him to lay a budget on us that really created a lot of chaos in the city with the layoff of firefighters and sanitation workers. The budget (for 1998) wasn't any better when he wanted to close the Wintergarden and library. How could people have faith in city government when you talk about defunding the library?
"Looking back, I think they made decisions and didn't realize the consequences. I think they looked at the numbers and didn't realize the effect it would have on people's confidence. Look at the number of people who turned out to object. Anybody who was part of city government got tainted with it," Accardo said.
And Accardo disagrees with Galie that the fire unions' support ultimately hurt his election bid because of a perception that if Accardo were elected the firefighters would run the city.
"I suppose that's the perception, but you have to remember that in March 1996, when he proposed cutting 10 firefighters, I voted to cut 12. In November, he proposed cutting 27; the City Council cut 10. I was part of the Council that cut 22 firefighters. So I think it's kind of unfair to say the firefighters were going to run the city. They certainly didn't run it in 1996 when I was chairman," Accardo said.
Restaino said the situation with the Fire Department was a disappointment he will take with him.
"I think it was a shame that the situation deteriorated as much as it did. I don't think there was a winner -- and I'm not talking in the political sense," Restaino said. "If I had to do it over again I'm not so sure the best thing to have done was to open up the budget in 1996. While the actions that were taken had to be taken, it obviously set an administration that was only three months old at odds with a number of groups. The 1997 budget just was a continuation of that. In retrospect, there may have been some administrative actions we could have taken, not filling some positions, holding back on spending. I don't know if we could have saved as much as we did. It may have just been putting off the inevitable."
Galie believes the city's tenuous financial condition overshadowed and magnified most of what happened during his administration. If the city were prospering, he said, many of the battles probably would not have escalated.
But there's very little he would do differently under the same circumstances, he said.
"I think, overall, the city is in better shape than four years ago. There's still lot of work that needs to be done. Hopefully, the new administration will pick up on it and move forward," Restaino said.
Galie wouldn't rule out another run for public office someday but said he is looking forward to spending more time with his wife, Eva, and his family and traveling.
"In all honesty, I'm thankful for the opportunity. It's not everybody who can be mayor of a city like Niagara Falls that's known throughout the world," Galie said. "I really had fun during my four years, even during the volatile times. I was the last mayor of the 20th century. Irene will be the first mayor of the 21st century."