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Robert McCarthy: Minkel's political balancing act

Back in January of 2011, just days after Andrew Cuomo took office as the new governor of New York, the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority first appeared on the Albany radar screen.

The NFTA’s board of commissioners had just appointed Kim Minkel as its new executive director at a salary that would grow to $208,000 today. The new governor was not pleased when he was not consulted, and one of his top transition team members – Mary Ann Crotty – let it be known.

“Why make that appointment the week before he took office?” she asked. “It’s an ‘in your face’ kind of thing.”

Crotty spoke with authority as a onetime key aide to Gov. Mario Cuomo and a veteran Capitol insider. But her observations were dismissed by Henry Sloma, a Republican who was then acting chairman of the NFTA. He called Crotty’s remarks “disappointing.”

All of this comes full circle following the Tuesday report by Sandra Tan of The Buffalo News outlining the precarious position in which Minkel now finds herself. A competent and respected administrator with degrees from Niagara University and Canisius College, the executive director has come under fire for allegedly failing to recognize the political world in which she and her authority operate.

One insider with knowledge of the situation, who asked not to be identified, noted that in an effort to avoid its former reputation as a “political patronage pit,” the NFTA’s pendulum may have swung too far toward the nonpolitical.

“Her blind spot is the lack of political awareness and how to interface with government,” the source said. “They’ve tried to stay in their lane after years of that ‘political’ label. But after their ridership, their next constituency is the elected officials who bring them their operating money. Whether they like it or not, that’s life as a public authority.”

Yup – we’re talking politicians here. They like to have their photos snapped as they snip ribbons for airport or subway projects. And they take credit for bringing home Albany money. It’s the way of politics.

Indeed, Cuomo’s program for this year includes money for extending Metro Rail into the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad Terminal, as well as for efforts to eventually build beyond the University at Buffalo’s South Campus. Albany has hiked NFTA funding in recent years, and expedited the transfer of the vast Outer Harbor acreage from the authority to the state park system.

But the process of siting a new Amtrak station for Buffalo – a Cuomo priority – manifested problems between NFTA headquarters and the Capitol’s second floor. Albany wanted an “intermodal” facility to handle trains and intercity buses; the NFTA representative to the planning committee opposed the concept.

And Sr. Denise Roche, Cuomo’s appointee as authority chairwoman, backed her executive director to the hilt in warning against the ramifications for the NFTA.
Minkel, who came up through the NFTA ranks and never previously played the politics game, also learned a few things earlier this year when Democrats pushed for the NFTA to hire Legislator Lynne Dixon as its new spokeswoman. An Independence member who caucuses with the Republicans and provides a key piece of the GOP majority, it offered maybe the only way Dems could replace the politically invincible Dixon. Minkel did not.

Call it part of her political education, but it appears the executive director will be asked – at the least – to maintain better lines of communication with Albany. Nobody is suggesting a return to the authority’s “bad old days” of politics. But in a new development, she is now participating in regular conference calls with top Cuomo staffers.

Some say Minkel could lose her job following the rash of complaints. Others say she is safe and enjoys strong board support. But there is no question that Albany seeks changes in the way the authority operates.

Crotty’s quote from 2011 may sum up the Albany view: “This is not political influence. If you want the state to be receptive to your requests, why at least would you not have the new governor have some input?”

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