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Buffalo's longtime public works chief retiring

The man who oversaw the cleanup of some of Buffalo's biggest storms, including the "October Surprise," is retiring at the end of the month.

Public Works Commissioner Joseph N. Giambra, the city's longest-tenured department head, ended speculation Wednesday by confirming that he will leave one of City Hall's most visible posts Dec. 31. The departure of an administrator widely respected by elected leaders and many union workers will trigger a management change in a department that plows streets, mends roads, picks up trash and runs all city buildings.

Mayor Byron W. Brown said he might nominate Giambra's successor this month, an appointment that would be subject to Common Council confirmation. The mayor's transition team screened numerous candidates last year before Brown's decision to retain Giambra as a holdover from Anthony M. Masiello's administration.

Giambra has headed the third-largest department since 1994. He started working for the city in 1974 as an assistant public works superintendent. Giambra turned 55 last week, the earliest age that civil servants with at least 30 years of service can take early retirement.

"It was always my intention to leave at 55," Giambra said.

Even as Brown appointed him in January, there was widespread speculation Giambra might leave the $81,484 post after a year.

Brown said the city will miss Giambra's strong work ethic, ability to manage an 800-person work force and institutional knowledge.

"He provided tremendous leadership during the [October] storm," Brown said. "He literally worked around the clock and helped the city have a phenomenal response to this natural disaster."

Richard M. Tobe, the city's economic development chief, echoed the sentiments, saying Giambra didn't go home for three days during the emergency

Giambra's career in public works has spanned four mayors, a departmental overhaul, a consolidation of garbage districts and numerous weather emergencies.

"The October storm was probably the most challenging thing we faced," Giambra said. "It was so different than anything we've ever dealt with before."

Giambra said he has offered to work with the new commissioner after his retirement to continue efforts to obtain federal and state emergency reimbursements for costs associated with the October storm. He has not ruled out returning to City Hall in some consulting capacity, although no final decisions have been made.

Giambra said an ongoing probe by Erie County prosecutors into possible wrongdoing involving the awarding of municipal contracts in Buffalo and Amherst had no impact on his decision to retire. The Erie County district attorney's office confirmed the investigation in April, adding that the probe likely would take some time to complete.

Giambra's relationship with rank-and-file workers has been generally good, said William C. Travis, the head of the city blue-collar union, who has known Giambra for 16 years.

"He's going to be hard to replace," Travis said. "We had a few disagreements over the years, but Joe was always accessible. He always listened to our concerns."

Travis noted that Giambra was at the helm when the Public Works Department was revamped by a charter change in 2000 to include the Parks and Streets divisions. Shortly after Public Works took over streets sanitation tasks, Buffalo's experiment with covered garbage totes was launched citywide. The program has been credited with drastically reducing rodent problems.

e-mail: bmeyer@buffnews.com

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