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Brown earns both praise, criticism Mayor's leadership gets mixed reviews

Hardworking? Yes.

Cautious and even-tempered? Without a doubt.

Open and accessible? Depends on whom you ask.

Mayor Byron W. Brown's first term in office has earned him mixed reviews when it comes to leadership of his adopted hometown.

While many praise him for the discipline and control he has brought to City Hall, others question the quality of his appointments and suggest he's more concerned with image than ideas.

"There are pluses and minuses to the organization he has over there," said Robert D. Gioia, head of the John R. Oishei Foundation. "But overall, I give him favorable ratings."

Among the pluses is a public persona, one Brown cultivates at every opportunity, that suggests he's honest and well-intentioned, even in the midst of scandal.

On the other side of the ledger is the belief that, yes, he puts in long hours, but only because ambition, not performance, drives him.

"He needs to step to the plate," said community activist Darnell Jackson. "We don't need someone who cares just about politics."

Jackson speaks for a lot of people -- most of them unwilling to talk on the record about Brown -- when he suggests the mayor cares more about style than substance.

"He's very good at press conferences," said one community leader who deals frequently with Brown. "It's all about looks and show. I have, after four years, yet to have a discussion of substance with him."

Brown, a former Common Council member and state senator, has heard the criticisms before.

He won't raise his voice or waver from his mild-mannered demeanor, but the contention that he's more concerned with politics than public policy clearly bothers him.

On a recent summer morning, while walking door-to-door on Dunlop Avenue in the city's University District, the mayor wondered aloud why people would say such a thing.

"I'm a nice guy, but I'm also a no-nonsense guy," he told a reporter. "I'm tough. I'm a workaholic. And I'm passionate about the city."

On this day, when the city's massive Clean Sweep crew is on the scene, he seems to be among fans. Residents are eager to shake his hand and are even happier to see workers fixing up their neighborhood.

As the mayor walks the neighborhood, public works crews clear brush from a vacant house, state health employees sign up uninsured children, National Grid employees work atop light poles, and members of a faith-based group offer residents a wide range of human services.

"I think he's doing real good," said Carol Smith, a 14-year resident of Dunlop. "He's tearing down a lot of bad houses, and he's cleaning up neighborhoods."

Even among the street's self-described skeptics, folks such as Steven McMillion, Brown seems popular.

"No one would come out to address our problems," McMillion said of the numerous complaints he filed with city government.

"But he came."

If there's one almost universal complaint about Brown, it's that he's inaccessible, even isolated.

Friends and foes alike point to the police officer stationed at the front door to his second-floor office as indicative of his administration's obsession with control.

>'Smallest inner circle'

"It seems to be a very insular administration," said Delaware Council Member Michael J. LoCurto. "The guard at the door is the right symbol for this administration."

Others feel shut out and wonder how much information actually makes it to the mayor's desk. They also wonder who Brown looks to for advice and counsel.

"He has the smallest inner circle of any mayor I've dealt with," said a union leader who asked not to be named. "In fact, I don't even know if he has an inner circle."

Privately, many suggest it's a circle of one -- Deputy Mayor Steven M. Casey.

"He's very difficult to get a meeting with," said one community leader. "His gatekeeper, Steve Casey, does a great job of insulating him. He's not hearing from the voices he needs to hear from."

"Ridiculous" is how Casey characterizes the complaints that he and he alone has the mayor's ear.

So whom does the mayor look to for advice?

Casey acknowledges it's a group dominated not by outsiders, but by commissioners and department heads.

"Our world is City Hall," he said. "If we're not with our families, we're with each other."

>Turnover in personnel

Timothy E. Wanamaker thinks the concerns about accessibility are valid. And as a former top aide who knows him well, he thinks the mayor will open up his administration as part of his next term.

"You have to be accessible," said Wanamaker, who served as director of strategic planning under Brown and his predecessor, Anthony M. Masiello. "And I think he'll probably tell you he wants to do that."

Wanamaker left last year, but he still regards Brown as a quick study, a politician who made the difficult transition from legislator to executive. He remembers the October 2006 snowstorm as one of the first challenges Brown faced as mayor, a test he passed with flying colors.

Even more important, he said, was his boss' early and unquestioned commitment to economic development.

"His focus was clear and result-oriented," said Wanamaker, who left to become city administrator in Inglewood, Calif. "And his focus on downtown was unwavering."

But with the successes has come scandal, some of them serious enough to warrant a shake-up in personnel.

Among them was the resignation of Brian Reilly as head of Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corp., a city development agency.

Reilly, who continues to serve as commissioner of economic development, permits and inspections, stepped down on the same day The Buffalo News disclosed that the woman living with him was receiving, without board approval, agency-paid health insurance.

A few weeks later, Brown fired Michelle M. Barron, an agency vice president, for her role in One Sunset, a restaurant that many suspect was destined to fail but still received $160,000 in public funding.

"These decisions are not easy," Brown said, "but they're necessary ones to move the pace of progress in the city."

Not all of the changes, at least in the eyes of critics, have been positive.

The mayor forced Richard M. Tobe, a widely respected adviser, out as head of development and inspections. And a few months before Tobe's ouster, Human Resources Commissioner Leonard A. Matarese quit.

Their departure was followed earlier this year by the resignation of Corporation Counsel Alisa A. Lukasiewicz, another well-respected adviser. Several people cited Lukasiewicz's strained relationship with Casey as the reason.

Gioia, who views the mayor's appointments as a mixed bag, gives him credit for making changes when he had to. And in Buffalo, where change is not always easy, he thinks that's a sign of leadership.

"He's trying to enact real change," Gioia said of the mayor. "But it's like trying to turn the Queen Mary around in a parking lot."

e-mail: pfairbanks@buffnews.com

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