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Power coalition wonders if it was deceived into low offer

Several Niagara Power Coalition members have started to wonder whether their former director manipulated them into accepting a low-ball offer from the New York Power Authority.

Doubts grew after revelations about Mark Zito's alleged financial misdeeds in recent weeks. On Friday, Federal Bureau of Investigation took the coalition's entire archive of financial records, according to Coalition President William Ross.

In November 2004, Niagara Power Coalition board members accepted a $1.1 billion deal with the New York Power Authority without most coalition leaders seeing the recommendations of its own settlement consultant.

That expert recommended the coalition seek at least $4.4 billion in cash and power over 50 years. The opinion by FMY Associates of Los Altos, Calif., was issued in March 2004.

Six months later, the Niagara Power Coalition inked a deal for a quarter of that amount.

"That report has never been shared with me, and I've asked numerous times," said Town of Niagara Supervisor Steve Richards, a coalition member. "First I was told it was a draft, then Mark said it was irrelevant."

Mark Zito convinced several board members that the report should never be made public, they said, and threatened some members that their communities would get nothing if they pushed the Power Authority for more, they said.

Zito declined to be interviewed.

"I don't feel I'm getting a fair shake and do not see the value of talking," Zito said.

Zito has served on the Niagara Falls School Board since 1992. He is a former Local 91 laborer living on disability. Niagara Falls Superintendent Carmen A. Granto doubted that Zito had intimidated anyone on the coalition board. "I don't see anybody getting browbeaten in there, by anybody," he said.

Lewiston-Porter Acting Superintendent Don Rappold said he didn't see Zito browbeat anyone. And what about the consultant's $4.4 billion opinion?

"I think we might have been able to do better. We might have done worse," he said.

Coalition members include Niagara County, the City of Niagara Falls, the towns of Lewiston and Niagara, and the Lewiston-Porter, Niagara-Wheatfield and Niagara Falls school districts.

The Niagara Falls School District and City of Niagara Falls were rewarded for promising to back the Power Authority's relicensing efforts before the Niagara Power Coalition began formal negotiations.

In 1998, they got $7 million from the authority for improvements at its Sal Maglie Stadium.

"It was a condition of that deal, as I recall, that we would support NYPA," Granto said.

In addition, the authority waived claims to the Niagara Falls High School site.

NYPA spokesman Michael Salzmann declined to talk about whether the school district was supposed to do anything in exchange for the money and land.

"We have a long tradition of giving to Western New York communities as part of our responsible stewardship of the Niagara Power Project dating back the project's construction," Salzmann said. "This is all part of being a good neighbor, a role we take seriously."

Despite his misgivings, Steve Richards said, he's proud his town might finally get some compensation. "Fifty years ago," he said, "we got nothing."

e-mail: agalarneau@buffnews.com

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