Niagara County's Republican leader is targeting Supervisor Wright H. Ellis, a fellow Republican, for defeat in this year's election.
GOP Chairman Henry F. Wojtaszek said Wednesday he is backing former County Legislature Majority Leader Shirley G. Urtel in a Republican primary against Ellis, who is in his 16th year as supervisor.
The move is part of a complex tale of local Republican infighting that has dragged in two prominent Republican attorneys, one of whom recently helped his auto mechanic become the Democratic nominee for a GOP-held County Legislature seat.
Ellis said Wojtaszek's beef with him appears to be part of a long-simmering battle between the County Legislature and the six supervisors whose towns compose the Niagara County Sewer District. The dispute centers on whether the towns or the county should control the district.
Wojtaszek criticized Ellis, the Sewer District chairman, for supporting former Sewer District attorney Robert S. Roberson in his efforts to get the county to approve payment of more than $17,000 Roberson says he is owed for legal work at the district. County Auditor Ruth E. Ohol has blocked the payments.
Roberson sued the county to get the money, but in April, State Supreme Court Justice John L. Michalski dismissed the suit on a legal technicality. Roberson said he will appeal, but he hasn't done so yet.
Roberson is a law partner of Edwin J. Shoemaker, town attorney for Cambria and Somerset.
Shoemaker, a former county attorney, is representing Somerset in a lawsuit against the county Industrial Development Agency, trying to overturn the tax break the IDA awarded to AES Corp. for its Somerset power plant. The IDA is chaired by Henry M. Sloma, one of the county GOP's largest financial contributors.
Shoemaker said Wednesday he helped recruit his mechanic, registered Republican Charles F. Dahlquist, to run under the Democrats' banner for a County Legislature seat held by another Republican, Majority Leader Richard E. Updegrove.
Wojtaszek said the Urtel candidacy came together in the last week or so, after the Cambria Republicans had endorsed Ellis for re-election. Wojtaszek said he doesn't expect the county GOP committee to make any endorsement in the supervisor race when it meets tonight, although he intends to deliver cash, perhaps from a political action committee, to fund a direct mail campaign for Urtel.
"I will be supporting Shirley Urtel because I think the old days of a small group running local government and taking care of their friends are outdated," Wojtaszek said. "Wright Ellis showed he's part of that old way when he voted to pay Bob Roberson a bill that the court said he wasn't entitled to. He also voted to pay $13,000 for a bill that Roberson already was paid seven years ago. That's double billing."
Ellis said, "Two things I value: My personal integrity and my loyalty. If they have a problem with that, I can't help it. "
Ellis and Roberson both said the claim for the $13,000 payment was withdrawn, and that Wojtaszek mischaracterized Michalski's ruling, which was that Roberson filed the wrong type of lawsuit. "The court has never ruled on the merits of the case," Ellis said.
Urtel said, "I don't see it as a bad position for [the district] to be somewhat independent. If the county's going to have some funds in it, they should have a say."
Urtel, who served in the County Legislature from 1995 to 2001, said she has the business background and political connections to be supervisor.
"I think I know how things work," she said. She said she had no specific objection to Ellis' record as supervisor, adding, "It's a free country. Everybody can say, 'Hey, I can do that job.' "
"I think I've done a good job for the people of Cambria," Ellis said, adding that he has known Urtel for many years, and although they aren't close, they've never had any animus. Urtel agreed.