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Zemsky to depart as NFTA chairman

Howard A. Zemsky’s new Cabinet-level duties in Albany will lead to his departure as chairman of the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority in June, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s office said late Wednesday.

Although Cuomo spokesman Richard Azzopardi said the Buffalo developer and Cuomo confidant had always planned to step down from the regional transit agency at some point, the move still comes as a surprise. As recently as Tuesday, Zemsky insisted he would remain at the helm of the authority, despite questions of potential conflict as a state employee and head of the NFTA – another state agency.

That changed late Wednesday after questions were posed by The Buffalo News.

“During the appointment process, Howard Zemsky made it clear how proud he was of his work on NFTA, and neither he, nor we, saw any issue with continuing in that role,” Azzopardi said. “That said, it was always his intent to step down from his position on the transportation system once an orderly transition could be ensured. To that end, he will leave the NFTA as chairman this June and will be succeeded by a governor’s appointment that will be delivered in June to the State Senate for confirmation.”

One name that has been mentioned as a possible successor, according to several sources with knowledge of the situation, is Buffalo attorney Anthony J. Colucci III.

Wednesday’s attention focused on Zemsky, however, who maintains one of Western New York’s highest profiles not only as a private businessman instrumental in the redevelopment of Buffalo’s Larkinville district, but in government and volunteer posts, too.

Zemsky’s status as one of Cuomo’s closest advisers in Western New York has only grown in 2015, when the governor named him commissioner of economic development and president of Empire State Development.

But questions arose early in the budget-adoption process when Zemsky was dispatched with other Cabinet officials across the state to tout the 2015-16 state budget. During a Jan. 29 appearance at the Seneca Falls Community Center, for example, a Finger Lakes Times account reported Zemsky’s praise for a new Cuomo budget highlighted by economic development, tax reductions and a tone of good government.

“Gov. Cuomo expanded the state’s commitment to upstate and that has been invigorating for us,” Zemsky told his audience.

But Zemsky’s talk never mentioned the serious concerns that another state agency – the NFTA – was expressing about the budget. Back in Buffalo, Zemsky’s NFTA staff found itself challenged once again by a state budget that left the agency with almost $10 million less than needed.

As a result, questions began to dog Zemsky about his ability to effectively wear two state government hats, as a member of Cuomo’s Cabinet advocating for the governor’s agenda and as head of the transit agency lobbying for more state money.

On Tuesday, Zemsky emphasized that he had no plans to leave the NFTA while earlier acknowledging inquiries about potential conflicts as “fair questions.” And he defended his ability to advocate for the NFTA while also serving in the governor’s Cabinet.

“If the state said this was anything unethical or inappropriate, of course I would step down,” Zemsky said then. “I am very confident I can represent and advocate for the NFTA board while head of Empire State Development.”

Zemsky added that “I understand how somebody might take another position.”

As late as Tuesday, Zemsky said he was committed to remaining at the transit agency, which he said plays a vital role in his other position – fostering economic development.

“To the contrary,” Zemsky said about any concerns of possible conflict, “my familiarity with economic development, the delegation, the administration and the management of the NFTA puts me in a position to advocate for the NFTA and transit. And economic development for the region has to include a transit component.”

Zemsky did not claim any direct role in the final budget negotiations last month that partly satisfied the NFTA and other upstate transit authorities, even though several Metro Rail capital projects are again delayed because of a lack of funding. But he said he continues to advocate for transit systems in cities such as Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and Albany as a member of Cuomo’s Cabinet.

“Nobody would say I’ve been soft on that,” he said.

Colucci, managing attorney for the Buffalo law firm Colucci & Gallaher and a member of the Western New York Power Proceeds Allocation Board, would not comment on any potential appointment by the governor. But several sources who asked not to be identified said even before Wednesday’s announcement about Zemsky that Colucci was being mentioned as a possible successor.

NFTA Vice Chairman Henry M. Sloma, a Niagara County Republican who headed the authority’s board of commissioners on an interim basis for more than three years, said earlier this week that he was unaware of any conflicts for Zemsky in his different state roles. He also said the Western New York legislative delegation respects Zemsky and his judgment in making the authority’s case in Albany.

“I think Howard is an individual of integrity,” he said, “and I am convinced that if it came to a point of conflict, he would do the right thing.”