What started as a vague statement against racism escalated into nasty words about the arrest of Erie County Legislator Gregory B. Olma, and ended in bitter reminders about various legislators' past arrests.
By the time Thursday's discussion was over, the County Legislature reaffirmed a statement against racism in the community that it adopted earlier this month. But the floor fight left lots of dirty laundry hanging out in the open.
"It's not right, and it's not fair," said Olma, a Buffalo Democrat, who stands accused of racism. "We didn't do this for anybody else here who's been arrested."
Besides Olma, two other legislators -- both Buffalo Democrats -- have had encounters with law enforcement. Legislator Michael A. Fitzpatrick, who has been arrested three times on charges of drunken driving, was convicted this week in Evans Town Court of driving while impaired; Majority Leader Crystal D. Peoples was arrested last year on various charges after interfering in a domestic dispute between her neighbors. The charges were later dismissed.
"I don't think this body wants to go down the road of accusing its members of criminal behavior," Minority Leader Frederick J. Marshall, R-East Aurora, said in the midst of the fray. "Who are we to judge our own members unless a court of law or a judge says, 'Yes, you are guilty'?"
Olma is awaiting a grand jury appearance after being arrested in connection with an incident in which he was accused of using racist language against two African-American election inspectors on primary night, Sept. 12. Olma denies that the incident happened and said he never used racist words. He was arrested on nine counts of coercion, aggravated harassment, harassment and resisting arrest.
In the meantime, Olma said, no one -- especially not the Legislature -- should censure him before his case has been heard in the courts.
That is a position that Legislature Chairman Charles M. Swanick, D-Kenmore, also has taken, though Swanick -- who does not usually see eye to eye with Olma -- said the Legislature might hold talks on the issue after Olma has had his day in court.
"We cannot tolerate racism in this city. It will destroy the community, and it will make people leave," Swanick said. "The courts have to determine what happened here, as to what's right and what's wrong. But the Legislature needs to take a lead role here in telling the community that there is no room to tolerate this."
But some legislators took the opportunity to take Olma to task.
George A. Holt Jr., D-Buffalo, wants the Legislature to amend the County Charter so the Legislature can censure or expel its own members. That suggestion was first made last week by Frank B. Mesiah, president of the Buffalo Chapter of the NAACP, who called for Olma's resignation or censure just days after Olma's arrest at the Fillmore Avenue polling place.
"I am not here to condemn. However, I represent a community where 80 percent or more are African-American," said Holt. "When an incident like this takes place in your district, you must stand on behalf of the people."
Peoples, the majority leader, said she has spoken with the two women accusing Olma of racism and supports them in taking their case to court.
"I encourage them to follow through with whatever process they've started," Peoples said.
But Legislator Albert DeBenedetti, D-Buffalo, countered with the most heated speech of the session, blasting Holt, Peoples, Mesiah and others of "black racism" in criminalizing Olma before his case is heard in court.
"White racism or black racism, it's just as repugnant," DeBenedetti said. "This is an allegation. There is no proof. We're turning due process on its head here."