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Bridge Authority erupts in animosity

FORT ERIE, Ont. – When Anthony M. Annunziata, of Ontario, accepted the rotating chairmanship of the Peace Bridge Authority on Friday, he praised 200 years of peace between Canada and the United States since the War of 1812.

But all is not peaceful on the Peace Bridge today. The most serious dispute in anyone’s memory on the binational panel that runs the span erupted Friday after the U.S. delegation unsuccessfully attempted to fire General Manager Ron Rienas – a Canadian.

Annunziata described as “absolutely absurd” allegations by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s administration that Canadian members of the authority are slowing the pace of Peace Bridge projects on the Buffalo side, while acknowledging a deepening rift that now centers on Rienas. He noted the five New York members have failed to form a quorum since December and that the Canadian caucus still supports anything that will enhance the Peace Bridge system and encourage trade between the U.S. and Canada.

Friday, Annunziata seemed to pin the escalating situation directly on Cuomo.

“The governor has officially made it very clear for some time now that they want to work with people that give them the answer they want,” he said. “If they don’t get the answer they want, then they’re looking for changes.”

He also blamed the divergent approaches of both sides to developing the Buffalo plaza, which ranks as a top Cuomo priority.

“I don’t think they appreciate the style we’ve done when we approach development,” he said of the New York caucus. “We approach certainly with responsibility and caring for the community.”

An equally hard-nosed view is taking hold on the Buffalo side. Sam Hoyt, who is now the authority’s vice chairman and is leading the Cuomo charge, released a statement from the American caucus again highlighting the word “progress.”

“Unfortunately, that word cannot be applied to planned and funded improvements to the American plaza at the Peace Bridge,” the Americans said. “The reason for this is simple: the inexplicable lack of cooperation from the Canadian members of the Peace Bridge Authority board.”

The U.S. representatives blasted their counterparts for failing to vote on their proposal to remove Rienas and reiterated their lack of confidence in him.

“The five appointed Canadian representatives to the Peace Bridge Authority, while well aware of irrefutable evidence of the general manager’s numerous shortcomings and dereliction of duty, refused to remedy this situation by voting on the general manager’s removal,” the statement said. “With this matter unresolved, we have serious concerns about the ability of the authority to conduct its business in an open and transparent environment that ultimately meets the needs of those that use the bridge.”

In turn, that statement prompted a rebuttal from Annunziata, who said he was “completely shocked” that the New York representatives would attack Reinas. He insisted that the general manager’s performance has never been questioned and that they were jeopardizing a man’s career to make their point.

“It’s just that they disagree with his approach and now they impugn him,” Annunziata said. “Never in my career have I been associated with something like this, and I’ve sat on a lot of boards.”

The Buffalo News first reported the simmering international dispute Friday, noting Howard Glaser, a top Cuomo aide in Albany, complained about the situation in a letter to Canadian Transport Minister Denis Lebel. He said the Canadian lack of cooperation stands in “stark contrast” to New York’s support for the authority’s vast infrastructure development in Fort Erie over the past several years.

Glaser also suggested in his letter that past practice dictates a “degree of deference” from one nation on projects particularly relating to the other.

Annunziata countered that he is “a little disappointed they would send a letter like that,” citing decades of cooperation between the two nations on Peace Bridge matters.

“It worked, and to suddenly suggest now it doesn’t?” he asked. “That’s absurd.”

The dispute, which has been building for months, even manifested itself in Friday’s opposing votes over approving minutes of past meetings. Hoyt led the New York delegation in opposing their approval, countered by an equal number of approving votes from the Canadian side.

Even that led to more disapproval from Annunziata, who noted some recent meetings could not be officially held because the New Yorkers failed to attend.

“They’ve got to come to work; they haven’t attended a board meeting since December,” he said. “We’ve been here.”

Hoyt acknowledged that it took until April for the authority’s reorganizational meeting because of “internal disputes.”

“As a result, different sides chose to not participate in meetings until that was addressed,” he said.

Still, Annunziata said he has not given up on completing the projects on the Buffalo side of the Niagara River.

“I’m committed to making this project work for Southern Ontario and Western New York, because that’s what they deserve,” he said.

“I think the governor’s intention to make this an open, honest and transparent approach is an excellent one,” he said, “and I am very anxious to work with the governor to support that approach.”

Glaser’s letter cites New York’s efforts to improve the U.S. side of the crossing, including negotiations to purchase property along Busti Avenue, a $15 million state commitment for improvements, obtaining $15.8 million in federal funds and working to acquire the Episcopal Church Home property.

The Busti Avenue sale has not yet come before the Common Council, which would have to approve it, and the state has not yet acquired the vacant Episcopal Church Home, which is adjacent to the bridge plaza.

The neighbors around the bridge, and even key elected officials, have been left in the dark about a plan for changes at the bridge plaza.

Bridge authority officials have said that until it controls certain parcels of land, such as a portion of Busti Avenue and the Episcopal Church Home property, it cannot present any plan for approval.

In other Peace Bridge developments, the authority found enough harmony Friday to unanimously approve Buffalo-based LP Ciminelli Co. as construction manager for renovation of the U.S. Customs secondary inspection building on the Buffalo bridge plaza.

The authority will pay the company $1.5 million for its part in a project expected to eventually top $20 million.

The architectural firm Wendell Duscherer was previously chosen to design the renovation. Construction on the project will run between 18 and 24 months and is scheduled to begin late this year.