Major banks and other businesses are bankrolling a committee promoting passage of the proposed Niagara County Charter in the Nov. 6 election, while town supervisors are spending town money to defeat it.
Both sides charged Friday that the other's tactics are illegal.
Paul J. Kolkmeyer, executive vice president of First Niagara Bank, said he has a previous court decision that says it's against the law for public money to be spent on campaigning for a vote on one side or the other of a referendum.
Kolkmeyer and Joan G. Aul, a vice president of M&T Bank, are co-chairmen of the pro-charter Committee for a Better Niagara.
Cambria Supervisor Wright H. Ellis said the supervisors have a legal opinion that state law allows them to advise their constituents to vote against the charter, because they view it as a threat to town government.
"We all passed resolutions to say we would do anything, spend appropriate amounts of money, to defend town government," said Newfane Supervisor John J. Connolly, chairman of the Niagara County Supervisors Association.
The charter would create a county executive and reduce the size of the County Legislature to 15 from 19. Eleven of the 12 town supervisors are against the charter because they believe it would endanger the towns' home-rule powers.
Ellis charged that the banks might be violating state banking law by contributing to the pro-charter committee.
A financial disclosure form filed last week at the Niagara County Board of Elections lists $8,250 in contributions to that committee. No expenditures were listed; Kolkmeyer said nothing had been spent at the time he filled out the form.
"We're still out there raising money," said Kolkmeyer. "I'd like to think it's going to be north of $30,000."
He noted that radio commercials now airing in favor of the charter are sponsored by the Niagara Business Alliance, not the Committee for a Better Niagara.
The largest individual contribution to that committee listed on the form is $2,000 from Robert G. Wilmers, chairman and chief executive officer of M&T Bank. Donald I. Dussing Jr., a senior vice president of M&T, gave $500.
First Niagara Bank gave $1,000 as a corporate donation, and the Buffalo Niagara Partnership gave the same amount.
Among the $500 contributors were Niacet Corp., the Lockport Auto Dealers Association, NOCO Energy Corp. and Christopher M. Glynn, president of the Maid of the Mist.
Nova Healthcare Administrators, a First Niagara subsidiary, which runs the county's employee health insurance program, contributed $250 to back the charter. Mullane Motors, a Pendleton auto dealership, gave $200, and Niagara County Community College President Antonette J. Cleveland kicked in $100.
Connolly said the Supervisors Association has spent about $2,800 so far on anti-charter advertising. The association's money comes from dues paid by the member towns as part of their regular budgets.
"Maybe we need to have lawyers look at that," Kolkmeyer said. "They are allowed to inform the public, but they cannot spend public money advocating a position."
"Mr. Kolkmeyer had better read the Town Law and the General Municipal Law," Ellis shot back. "We are perfectly in line spending this money. We claim the charter is not a benefit to the towns, so in that sense it is detrimental to town government."
Connolly said, "We have legal interpretations that we have every right to defend ourselves."
Ellis said, "Why are two banks leading the charge on this? I think someone ought to look into banking law and banking ethics."