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Removal of Van Ness raises concerns

Mayor Anthony M. Masiello's replacement of an outspoken Buffalo Preservation Board member has triggered questions over political retribution.

The controversy surrounds Cynthia Van Ness, who sharply criticized the design for a new HealthNow New York complex backed by the mayor. In September, she belittled the design to The Buffalo News and at a testy board meeting with the mayor in attendance, where she was one of only two board members to vote against it.

Van Ness began her appointment by Masiello on Aug. 4 to finish the term of a departed board member that was to end Aug. 31. She was expected to be reappointed, and the Preservation Board's membership list still puts her tenure until Aug. 31, 2008.

A June 28 letter from the mayor to the Common Council praised her credentials for filling the board's architectural historian seat. "I fully plan to reappoint Ms. Van Ness for a full three-year term," Masiello stated.

Instead, Van Ness learned in November that the mayor didn't want her back.

"I got the mayoral boot off the board and I don't know why," said Van Ness, a Buffalo librarian and president of the Preservation Coalition of Erie County.

Board member Paul Carroll said he was "disappointed" in the mayor's decision.

"She's very outspoken, in a polite way, on things she doesn't agree with," said Carroll, also a Masiello appointee. "It appears the mayor didn't like the way she voted."

Eva Hassett, the mayor's chief of staff, denied the decision had anything to do with views expressed by Van Ness during her brief tenure.

"The mayor basically changed his mind. It's not personal," Hassett said. "The mayor is grown up, and he can handle people disagreeing with him. He's not the kind of person who would make that kind of move."

Board member Russell Pawlak also said he thought Van Ness was poorly treated.

"I think it is very unfair to basically encourage someone to give of their time and effort, especially when it was indicated they would keep her for a full term," Pawlak said.

Pawlak questioned why the position was filled now instead of waiting for the incoming administration of Byron W. Brown.

John Laping, the board chairman who recommended Van Ness, declined to offer an opinion on the mayor's decision.

Van Ness said she doesn't believe the mayor is "a mean-spirited person," but she is at a loss why she wasn't reappointed. She believes the likeliest explanation was her vocal criticism of HealthNow's design but doesn't know for sure. If that was why, she said, it sends the wrong message.

"It has the potential to make it look like more retribution against respected activists. They've been down that road. Why do it again?" she said.

Van Ness drew a comparison to housing code violations brought against West Side housing activist Harvey Garrett the day after he criticized Inspections Commissioner Ray McGurn in The News. The Masiello administration denied any connection.

Barry Muskat, who teaches architecture at Canisius College, has been chosen by Masiello to fill Van Ness' seat on the 11-member board.

e-mail: msommer@buffnews.com

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