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Cuomo’s the winner in the battle over the Peace Bridge

If ever a political body offered a favorite focus for the Politics Column, it must be the Erie County Water Authority. Who’s in; who’s out. It’s all there.

Now the same concept applies to the Peace Bridge Authority. And after the binational panel’s longtime Canadian honcho – Anthony Annunziata – departed a few days ago, it’s fair to say it reflects the state of New York-Canada politics, too.

After almost three years of tension between the authority’s Canadian and American delegations, the New Yorkers loyal to Gov. Andrew Cuomo may have now prevailed. Not so much from the governor’s hardball tactics with Canadians over the pace of development on the Buffalo plaza. But more because of Canadian voters.

Annunziata’s departure after nine years on the authority stems from the normal ebb and flow of politics across the Niagara River. Annunziata served as an appointee of the Conservative government of former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, voted out of office in October. Now Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his Transport Canada control Peace Bridge appointments. Annunziata is gone. Other Canadian members may follow.

“The unique thing about this governing structure is that we all wanted to get things done, but just went about it differently,” Annunziata said a few days ago of his tenure. “Unfortunately, the political role was bigger than it needed to be.”

Annunziata emerged as the outspoken head of the five-member Canadian delegation when a long-simmering dispute with the five New York members erupted in 2013. After years of development on the Fort Erie plaza, Cuomo’s representatives grew increasingly impatient with the lack of progress in Buffalo. They moved to fire General Manager Ron Rienas – a Canadian. That never happened because a majority could never be mustered on the evenly split board.

At the time, Annunziata pinned the dispute 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 then. “If they don’t get the answer they want, then they’re looking for changes.”

Things got ugly. All-day meetings were convened in New York City between the governor and Canadian ambassador. Not since the War of 1812 were relations so prickly between Buffalo and Fort Erie, Ont.

Now Canadian voters appear to have given Cuomo exactly what he wanted, at least in Annunziata’s departure. The governor’s top representative on the board – Sam Hoyt – thanked Annunziata last week for his service while acknowledging their differences.

“Anthony and I, as responsible leaders of the two delegations, have had our differences and have crossed swords occasionally,” Hoyt said. “I still respect him and his years of institutional knowledge. If he is replaced, I look forward to a more coordinated and cooperative relationship with whoever replaces him.”

But a glance at the authority demonstrates the depth of Albany’s control of the New York delegation. Hoyt is viewed as one of Cuomo’s top guys in Western New York. So is former Mayor Tony Masiello, another Cuomo supporter and another authority member from New York.

When Masiello missed the last meeting, he was temporarily replaced by Maria Lehman, another key player in the Great Canadian-American War of 2013. The governor recently named her acting executive director of the Thruway Authority, another panel near and dear to his heart.

There’s more. The most recent meeting introduced Giorgio DeRosa, a top Albany lobbyist whose Bolton-St. Johns firm was just hired by authority lawyer Adam Perry (a frequent Democratic contributor) for $60,000 per year. DeRosa’s daughter is Melissa DeRosa, Cuomo’s chief of staff. Melissa has recused herself from matters involving her father. The lobbyist also gave $10,000 to Cuomo in the past 2½ years, according to Board of Elections records.

Annunziata now fades from the Peace Bridge – just what the Cuomo forces sought ferociously behind the scenes. They can thank the voters of Canada.