The more well-known he becomes, the more rumors pop up about Amherst Supervisor Satish B. Mohan.
After his inauguration in January, word spread that he was double-dipping -- taking paychecks from two government-funded jobs at the same time.
When he turned down a town-furnished car, critics said he wanted to collect the money for mileage, 44.5 cents per mile.
And, when he said his favorite exercise is taking long walks with his wife, Usha, detractors pointed out that Mohan parks in a handicapped spot at Town Hall. He was even photographed recently walking with hand weights.
Why all the chatter?
Mohan reminds others that he predicted there would be a backlash against him and his ideas and goals -- especially from those who stand to lose if he succeeds in trimming Amherst's taxes and spending.
"People fear change," he says.
Backlash or not, the rumors appear to be the dark side of the unprecedented attention paid to the reform-minded supervisor in the region's biggest, wealthiest suburb.
Responding to the rumors, Mohan says he turned down more than $7,000 in pay for the first five weeks of his new job as Amherst supervisor because he was still teaching full time at the University at Buffalo. He has now taken leave from his UB post, but he said he did not feel it was reasonable to charge taxpayers for his town salary and his UB salary at the same time.
He also refuses to take any mileage when he uses his personal car, a sport utility vehicle, on town business, saying it is no sacrifice because he only drives about 10 miles a day.
On a recent trip to a New York City convention, Mohan said he also declined to charge the town for expenses.
Added together, it means Mohan has refused to accept nearly $10,000 in pay and perks in his first two months in office.
What about that parking space? Mohan, who is 70, says his doctor advised him to use a handicapped parking pass after he had open heart surgery about 10 years ago. "I only use it when I have to. And I have been advised that I should not walk in cold weather," he said.
Overall, he explains his actions as attempts to set examples of honesty and integrity, recalling, "One of my campaign promises was to bring a sense of economy to town government."
Mohan also said he didn't run for the job because of its $75,000 salary. "Money is the least attraction for this job," he said. "This is really a service, not a job to amass wealth."
Community activist Colleen Bogdan, who worked on Mohan's grass-roots election campaign, accuses Mohan's detractors of inventing controversies. "The man oozes integrity, and if his opponents can't find dirt, they've got to create it," she said, describing the rumors as a "coward's way" of opposing Mohan's call for changes.
There's no denying the atmosphere has changed at Amherst Town Hall.
With his administration still in its infancy, Mohan has discovered a handful of irregularities in payments to workers and vendors; replaced the town engineer; signed an agreement on Nature View Park that ended legal battles with the Western New York Land Conservancy; and took steps to tighten town spending and contracting procedures, among other actions.
He also set up a committee to examine all facets of town government and proposed reforms ranging from term limits for elected officials and department heads to opening town committees to all qualified town residents.
Along the way, he has stepped on toes, drawing attention to sensitive subjects such as the perks, benefits and pay of town workers and the financial incentives offered by local development companies.
Most recently, he questioned Amherst's longevity bonuses paid to unionized town employees, one-time lump sums given to workers on the 20th or 25th anniversary of their employment. In Amherst's case, bonuses range from $1,200 for blue-collar workers to more than $2,600 for police officers, but town officials point out that some area municipalities pay twice or nearly three times what Amherst pays.
Some Amherst residents say they like Mohan's fresh, often unorthodox ideas and his penchant for questioning entrenched interests, including politicians, developers and the unions that represent town workers.
>The test of change
Of course, not everyone agrees with Mohan or his reforms, including some Town Board members, who have openly challenged him. But even in dissent, lawmakers appear to be more polite these days, and Mohan is far quicker to use the gavel to restore order than was his predecessor, former Supervisor Susan Grelick.
"The real test will be, when the dust has settled, will anything be changed?" said Kevin Hardwick, Canisius College political science professor. "If it doesn't, then what has happened here?"
Hardwick and other observers question how Mohan can succeed if he alienates town workers and their union leaders. "Will he get anything done?" Hardwick said. "If he's got them upset, they will dig in their heels [causing] a cold war between Satish Mohan and the unions, and it will be that way for four years."
Erie County Legislator Thomas Loughran, D-Amherst, a former Amherst Town Board member, expressed a similar concern but, at the same time, gave Mohan high marks for sincerity, politeness and a willingness to try new ideas.
"During the campaign, he came across as a very honest and sincere person who is going to reduce your taxes, and that's music to people's ears," Loughran said.
But Loughran also says it is too early to tell what's going to happen in Amherst. "People have overreacted. Let's wait and see what he has done," he said.
And Hardwick is watching Mohan's effect on other Amherst officials. "What I find interesting is how everybody is jumping on the bandwagon. It begs the question, "Why haven't you done anything about this before?,' " he said.
As it stands, Bogdan and other supporters believe Mohan already has brought about changes. "He's on leave from teaching students, but now he's teaching taxpayers. He's already set the political bar much higher than it has been before. We're already seeing reform efforts on cost controls, term limiting and opening government to regular citizens. And problems are no longer being swept under the rug."
To this, Hardwick adds: "I think that just by asking the questions, he may inject something into the culture of town government that may not have been there in the past. And he may get other people to ask questions."