Some members of the City Charter Review Commission want their proposal for changing the rule book for city government, which was narrowly rejected by voters this month, to get another, fairer hearing.
Mayor Irene J. Elia, who opposed the document presented by the charter commission, saying it was not complete, said she will follow up on her goal of charter reform but won't say how or when. She and City Council Chairwoman Frances M. Iusi say there are more pressing concerns, such as the city budget and issues related to the Seneca Niagara Casino and how it will affect the city.
Councilman Vince V. Anello said he will introduce a series of charter changes to the City Council after the budget is complete.
And former Councilman Frank A. Soda, now chairman of the Niagara County Democratic Committee, advises city officeholders to back off from another round of charter revisions.
The latest defeat at the polls was the fourth time city voters have been asked to change, or tweak, their government since 1985, when they created the current form. Voters have had it, according to Soda, a longtime observer of the local political scene.
"To be constantly told that it's a piece of paper that's wrong with the city insults people because they know that's not the case," said Soda, who chalked up the city's often dysfunctional government to the "mediocre" candidates whom the people elect. "Whoever the next mayor is, they've got to give this thing a rest, this idea that whatever's wrong with city government is something that a piece of paper can fix."
"It's the lack of willingness on the part of the people who hold those offices to kind of work through the tough spots. That old cliche that politics is the art of compromise, well it's certainly lost on the people we've been electing for the past few years," Soda said.
He and Anello agreed that the charter commission members failed to clearly explain their proposal to the voters. But commission members said their hands were tied when Elia withdrew her support and failed to provide the commission funding to promote the document.
But Anello and Soda said the breadth of changes the commission proposed was too much for the voters to comprehend.
"I think the last charter commissions (since 1985) were too subtle about what they were trying to change, and people were confused about why this was going to be better," Soda said.
Anello said the commission should have introduced fewer changes -- for example, the mayor's salary. The commission proposed raising the salary from $30,000, which was set in 1985, to 10 percent more than the highest-paid department head, which today would be $78,500.
"Such changes should be explored and debated until everyone feels it's been explored thoroughly, then put it on the ballot. Smaller doses. It's hard to keep people's attention," Anello said.
Feelings were mixed about what role Elia's opposition and last-minute newspaper ads had on the vote. Former commission chairman Sean Q. Kelly believes the ads hurt, especially in view of the commission's lack of funding to counter them. According to unofficial results from the Niagara County Board of Elections last week, the charter was defeated by 208 votes.
"One of my thoughts is that $3,000 can buy you 208 votes. If we had $3,000 we probably could have won. That's probably what those opposing it spent . . . That's the frustrating thing. The $3,000 taken away from us was then spent against it," Kelly said, adding he meant it was the same amount of money but not that city funds paid for the ad. "I don't argue that politics is fair, but I think this is unfair. I really would have liked a clear shot at convincing people."
Soda said he didn't think the ad defeated the proposition. He believes people already had reservations about the changes. Anello said a "disproportionate" number of people told him they voted in favor of the proposition because Elia opposed it.
Elia said last week she had nothing to do with the ads and didn't know who did. The ads said they were paid for by "Citizens for Smarter Government." The Niagara Gazette, which ran the ads, has refused to divulge who paid for them.
No political action committee calling itself "Citizens for Smarter Government" had filed any financial disclosure forms with the Board of Elections as of press time, according to Democratic Elections Commissioner Nancy L. Sharpe. Depending on when the group raised and spent the money, that might be a violation of state election law.
Sharpe and Republican Elections Commissioner Scott Kiedrowski said their problem is that they don't know who the members of the group are.
"If we know who to contact they won't get away with it, because eventually it could get turned over to the (district attorney) for failure to file just like a candidate. If someone filed a complaint with us I'm sure we could go to the DA, and they could find out. We haven't received any formal complaint," Sharpe said.
Kelly said he wants to see the commission reconstituted to address what Elia and her administration have called "inconsistencies" in their document, and he would like to have it on the ballot for the May School Board election so it could still take effect in 2004. He said if the Elia administration is serious about charter reform, it would do that. Kelly said he would even serve again to finish the work -- if anyone in City Hall would reappoint him -- even though he resigned over the break with the Elia administration. But, he said, the commission doesn't need him to complete the job.
Corporation Counsel Ronald D. Anton, who also served on the commission but opposed putting the charter on the ballot this month because he said it needed much more legal review to be complete, said, "I am working on it from my vantage to address the inconsistencies."
"All I can say is the mayor and Council know my sentiments that we ought not waste the work" of the commission, he said.
"Right now we're concerned with the casino and everything else that's going on," Elia said. "Keep in mind the charter is one of my goals, so I'm not looking to let it die. I'll certainly follow through with it. I'm not thinking of that (how or when). I will consult with the City Council. They want to be involved."
Meanwhile, Anello has his own plan. He agrees with Soda that there is nothing inherently wrong with the current charter. He said it just needs some fine-tuning. As soon as the Council completes its budget deliberations, he said, he will begin introducing resolutions to clean up 83 handwritten changes to the charter, apparently made by the corporation counsel's office, identified by an outside law firm hired by the Council at Anello's urging in 1999. Attorney Paul D. Weiss told the Council at that time that many changes submitted after January 1996 to the Florida publishing company hired to combine and reprint the new 1985 charter and the original 1916 charter shifted power from the Council to the mayor illegally.
Several disputes between the two branches of government have ended up in court because of differing interpretations of the charter. Anello said some of the changes are simple typographical errors that can be fixed by the Council. More substantive changes, he said, would have to go to the voters.
If the Council won't act on the changes, Anello said, he will take the matter to the state attorney general's office, "not for any sinister purposes, but somebody has to handle this. If we can't do it locally, then the state can handle it . . . because you can't have a city operating for 15 years without a codified charter."
"This is not a political issue. It's just housekeeping. It's something that needs to be done. It was supposed to have been done. I've been talking about for six years now. I've been working on this for six years," Anello said. "It should have been 15 years ago. So let's get it done."