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Race for Tonawanda city judge may set spending record

It’s been nearly two decades since there’s been a wide open race for Tonawanda Chief City Court Judge, and the one this year already is believed to be the most expensive for any elected office in city history.

The primary Thursday is being described as a free-for-all among the three men running for a 10-year term to succeed Judge Joseph J. Cassata who, according to state law, must retire because he turns 70 this year.

Mark A. Doane, Mark E. Saltarelli and G. Michael Drmacich are vying for the Democratic, Republican, Conservative and Independence party lines in November.

Doane, an attorney with a general practice law firm on Main Street, is the endorsed Democrat. Saltarelli, also in private practice on Delaware Street, is the endorsed Republican, while Drmacich is an Erie County assistant district attorney. Doane and Saltarelli are also seeking the Working Families line.

Tonawanda’s chief judge presides over its drug, criminal, civil, traffic, mental health and housing courts. Cassata has been the cross-endorsed pick for 19 years in the position that pays $145,000 annually.

Combined, the three candidates have raised nearly $61,000, far more than the amount raised in any race in recent memory, veteran city political insiders said.

Drmacich has raised $27,382 for his bid, and reported a balance of $4,944 in the days leading up to the primary, according to financial-disclosure reports filed with the state Board of Elections.

Doane raised $16,035 and most recently reported $6,191 on hand. Saltarelli has raised $17,576 and reported a balance of $2,475, but said he expected to spend that remaining balance on the upcoming vital primary.

All three candidates are described as qualified and even the insiders were unable to project how the rare three-way primary would shake out. If one candidate were to secure most or all of the lines, the race would essentially be over.

Saltarelli, 60, notes he’s the only candidate with judicial experience. He was appointed in 2008 by then-Mayor Ron Pilozzi as part-time acting City Court judge until 2014 under Cassata where he said he handled all aspects of the court.

“Neither of my opponents can say that,” he said.

Drmacich, 54, points to his 28 years in the District Attorney’s Office, where he is chief of the community prosecution bureau, and said his extensive training and experience working with the city’s drug court will help in the battle with an opioid epidemic.

There have been eight overdose deaths from heroin laced with fentanyl in the city this year, according to police. The Fire Department has administered about double that number of overdose reversals using Narcan, police said.

“We’ve got to come to grips with this and root it out,” said Drmacich.

Housing issues are the major focus for Doane, 55, who points to his 12 years in Buffalo City Court, including four years as a court attorney referee hearing cases and writing opinions with retired Buffalo Housing Court Judge Henry J. Nowak Jr. Doane said he’s intent on using the Tonawanda court’s broad powers on housing to make a difference on stalled bank foreclosures, vacant homes and bad landlords.

“I think our houses are the biggest asset that people out here in Tonawanda have,” he said. “We’re kind of a middle class community, so if the houses go up or down $10,000 either way it’s a huge hit or a huge bonus for them. I’d like to reward people who are keeping up on their houses and find creative solutions.”

The court generates fine revenue to the City of Tonawanda annual operating budget, which was estimated in the 2015 budget to be $475,000, according to City Treasurer Joseph M. Hogenkamp.

There is only one primary for a Council seat between two named candidates. Both candidates for the Council’s 4th Ward seat – Roger L. Puchalski, the endorsed Democrat and a registered Republican, and Timothy J. Toth, the endorsed Republican – are squaring off for the Republican line.