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He's not running there, but Poloncarz looms large in 2019 Amherst races

As Democrats and Republicans prepare to select their contenders for elective office in Amherst, Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz is closer to getting another ally in town government.

The parties will meet this week to endorse candidates for two Town Board seats, town clerk, highway superintendent and town justice for this November's election.

Look for a high-profile rematch of the 2018 contest for town clerk, some familiar names in the Town Board contests and possible cross-endorsements that would eliminate any suspense in the races for highway superintendent and town justice.

But the 2019 races in Amherst, Erie County's largest suburb, also highlight the close connections between Town Hall and County Hall.

The town supervisor's chief of staff moved into that job from Poloncarz's staff in January 2018. That's also when Shawn Lavin, a county employee, joined the Town Board.

Now, Michael Szukala, the county's Medicaid Inspector General, is running for Town Board and is in line to receive the Democratic endorsement.

Amherst Republican Chairman Joseph Heins said the situation is rife with conflicts of interest.

"I absolutely think that the county executive is trying to extend his influence as much as possible," Heins said.

But Poloncarz denied any interest in meddling in town affairs.

"I certainly support good candidates who run for office," he said. "It's not me extending my influence."

The Amherst Town Board went all-Democratic in 2017, when Brian J. Kulpa won the supervisor's race and Lavin and Jacqualine Berger took spots on the board.

What happened to Amherst's Republicans?

Two seats are on the ballot this November: Incumbent Deborah Bruch Bucki is seeking another term and colleague Francina Spoth is running for town clerk.

Bucki, Szukala and Jim Tricoli, who operates the Amherst Times website, have requested the Democratic party's backing, said Amherst Democratic Chairman Jerome Schad. Alissa Shields, a member of the town's Zoning Board of Appeals, considered a run but opted out citing family considerations.

Schad said he thinks highly of Shields but, assuming the committee backs Bucki and Szukala, "I'd be very happy."

Steven Sanders confirmed he's seeking the Republican endorsement to return to the Town Board. Sanders couldn't run for re-election in 2017 because of term limits. Heins declined to say who else has sought the party's backing.

"I'd like to continue to help the town," said Sanders, who already is hammering on one likely campaign theme: the tax increase in the 2018 town budget approved by the all-Democratic board.

Sanders is a colleague of Szukala's on the Amherst Industrial Development Agency board. Szukala has served as the county's Medicaid inspector general since 2012. If elected, he would be the third current or former Poloncarz administration official in a top position in Amherst.

Lavin previously worked with Szukala but recently shifted to a job in the county's Personnel Department.

And Joseph McMahon served as a liaison for Poloncarz with community groups and with other county departments before taking the newly created position of chief of staff. McMahon ran Kulpa's successful 2017 campaign for supervisor before moving into Town Hall.

New Amherst supervisor hires campaign manager as chief of staff at $81,800

"If anything, people would say I'm poaching" from County Hall, Schad said. "The county executive has never once come to me and said, 'What about this person for office?' "

Poloncarz said he encourages his colleagues and employees to seek office. That group includes Diane Terranova, the Lancaster town clerk, who worked for Poloncarz when he was county comptroller.

"We want good people serving in government," Poloncarz said.

But he said he doesn't do so out of a desire to expand his political reach into those communities. In fact, he said, when McMahon left to join Kulpa's administration, "That was a big loss for my office."

Lavin said he first ran for Town Board, unsuccessfully, in 2009, before Poloncarz was county executive. He said any conflict, whether tangling over a funding formula or a county-maintained road, is handled amicably and without a question of divided loyalties.

If anything, Lavin said, the town benefits because it has a direct line to the County Executive's Office.

"The communication lines are already open," Lavin said. And, Poloncarz said, that goes the other way, too.

Sanders, the Republican who wants to return to the Amherst Town Board, declined to question the motives of Szukala or Poloncarz.

"I don't believe this is the county saying, let's take over control of Amherst government," he said.

But Heins, the GOP chairman, said when the Town Board lacks diversity of political thought, "The whole town will suffer." And, he said, "You can see pretty starkly where conflicts will arise there."

Amherst Republicans will meet on Monday to issue their endorsements, with Democrats following on Wednesday. Both parties have talked to prospective candidates in recent days.

The process of snagging an endorsement and getting onto the ballot is truncated this year because of changes to state election law.

New election rules good for voters, tricky for candidates

While Democrats have full control of the Amherst Town Board, Republicans fill the three other positions that are up for election in November.

Town clerk is likely to see Spoth, the Democratic Town Board member and deputy supervisor, again face off against Jeffery Zeplowitz. The Republican Zeplowitz beat Spoth last fall in a special election to replace Town Clerk Marjory Jaeger, but only after a technicality bumped Spoth from the Democratic ballot line.

Town Justice Geoffrey K. Klein, a Republican, has run with GOP and Democratic backing in the past, and that's a possibility again this year, Schad said.

Highway Superintendent Patrick G. Lucey Jr. also made a pitch for cross-party support at last week's candidates' meeting with the Amherst Democratic Committee, Schad said.

Heins largely declined comment on his committee's plan of action pending Monday's meeting.

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