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Falls mayor, Council look to elections for change, allies

Battle lines between Mayor Vince Anello and a majority of City Council members have been evident for three years in votes, heated public debates and disagreement on key policy issues.

The political discord dominates City Hall at a time that might otherwise be a promising turning point for the city, thanks to new money flowing into the Falls and development prospects on the horizon.

"There are things that need to get done," said City Administrator William Bradberry, who joined Anello's staff in March. "It's just unfortunate that in government as a whole, people sometimes have a hard time separating governance from politics."

Anello and the Council don't agree on the source of the frustration, but they do agree on several points:

*Friction between Anello and two councilmen, Robert Anderson Jr. and Lewis "Babe" Rotella, began during the first year of Anello's four-year term.

*Disagreements over how the city should proceed on important issues -- including a project to build a new courthouse and negotiations with private developers that control prime downtown land -- have fueled the disharmony, and often are the source of heated discussions that turn personal.

*To move forward, the players that make up Niagara Falls government will have to change.

"There has been no discussion about anything, because the mayor just seems to be negative," said Anderson, the Council chairman. "It's just been a dead issue now, and it will probably be like that for the next six months."

Anderson, who is seeking a second Council term, is running for re-election. He supports Rotella's bid to unseat Anello as mayor, starting with a Democratic primary in September.

The two nearly always vote together, and they typically align with Councilman Sam Fruscione to form a majority. Before Fruscione joined the Council in 2005, Anderson and Rotella aligned with former Councilman Glenn Choolokian.

Those alliances, Anello maintains, are at the root of the poor communication between himself and the Council. Anello said he believes that will change next year if either Anderson or Rotella are not re-elected.

"The fact that I'm irritated by the inaction and their stonewalling, who wouldn't be?" Anello told The Buffalo News last week. "It's a bloc of three. One of them won't be there Jan. 1. . . . A change in attitude has to happen on the Council. How it happens is up to the voters."

>One-time allies

There was a time before Anello, a former councilman, took office when he, Anderson and Rotella worked together. Large election posters listed the three names as the "winning team," Anello said.

What happened to split the team is a source of contention in itself. Both Anello and Rotella agree that communication began to break down in Anello's first year in office.

Anello said it started in April 2004 and that Rotella began campaigning against him by opposing his initiatives.

Anderson said he believes the breakdown occurred when then-City Administrator Daniel Bristol asked for a 37.7 percent raise. Before that, Anderson and Rotella have said, they gave the mayor support on initiatives like restructuring the departments of Public Works and Parks.

But Bristol's leadership style rubbed members of the Council the wrong way. Council members rarely visited Bristol's office and the city administrator eventually stopped attending Council meetings.

"It was his way of managing," Rotella said. "He wanted the military structure where he was the ranking man, and you were supposed to follow his orders. If you didn't, you were on the outs."

Bristol, who is now working as a consultant after resigning in February, sees the Council as the source of the problem. He said he focused on making government more efficient, but was met with opposition when he tried to implement tools to do that -- like BlackBerrys, Global Positioning System devices and an oil recycling unit.

>Project dispute

"They have consistently lacked a legislative agenda or any sort of coordination and time with the mayor," Bristol said. "The Council has spent all its time just saying no to every proposal from the executive branch."

Disagreements run deeper than BlackBerrys and GPS units.

The largest public construction project since the city built a new water plant is in the works and has been marked by bitter disputes between Anello and Rotella.

Anello opposed a contract to hire the private developer now working on the courthouse and left Rotella to sign the deal.

When discussing the courthouse, Anello often brings up an interim services agreement he proposed in May 2005 with a different development team chosen by committee.

"Their public attacks on the administration is just a smoke screen to hide their own incompetence," Anello said. "The very rejection of that interim services development agreement ensured a very large profit margin for the developer and no protection at all for the taxpayers, and I've had to deal with that."

Anello chastised Council members for waiting until afternoon work sessions the day of their meetings to ask questions about important proposals. Only Councilmen Chris A. Robins and Charles Walker consistently reach out to him or the administrator, Anello said.

But Rotella said the mayor hasn't made communicating easy.

"Remember when you were in school going to the principal's office? That's the feeling that we got when we went to his office," Rotella said. "It just seems that every work session comes out and ends up in a debate."

Anello bristled at Rotella's characterization. He pointed to his ability to talk to and work with Robins and Walker.

"My experience has always been that any fear of going to the principal's office is because you knew that you were doing something wrong," Anello said. "I'm professional enough to separate my job and my personal feelings. My personal feelings have never interfered with my performance on the job."

>Personality clash

Kathryn A. Foster, director of the University at Buffalo Regional Institute, said the increased debate between the two sides this election season may be a product of the built-in checks in the mayor-council form of government in which the mayor acts as a separate branch from the Council.

"You might argue that it's working effectively. The checks and balances are definitely in place. Neither one is the yes man to the other," Foster said. "But having said that, it may be that big projects, then, become a lightning rod for possible areas of disagreement."

Leaders today, Foster said, have to understand the nuances of their decisions and have to be able to build coalitions.

Bradberry, the new city administrator, said he is trying to build consensus to focus on the daily business of government, like fixing streets or pushing important projects. He plans to take an active role during future Council meetings to give administrative updates.

"These things have to move forward regardless of what's happening politically," Bradberry said.

But some watching city leaders -- including one candidate who will face Rotella and Anello in the September Democratic primary -- think personalities are at the heart of the disagreements.

"People who were at the Council meeting on the Tuesday after Memorial Day weekend were just appalled at the lack of civility at the meeting. People said it was like little children yelling at each other," said Paul Dyster, a former councilman who is running for mayor. "The starting point would be to try to get the personalities out of the policy disputes. You can have disagreements about policy that are very strong disagreements and yet treat each other in a civil manner."

e-mail: djewell@buffnews.com

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