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Rod Watson: Our City coalition aims to change faces, focus of Common Council

Rod Watson

At first, the chant might have been dismissed as merely aspirational: "Whose city? Our city!"

But now the grassroots groups that made that a rallying cry want to make it a reality by taking steps to change not just the faces, but the focus of the Buffalo Common Council.

The Our City coalition may be best known for its "subsidy tours," bus rides that highlight developments that have benefited from government handouts. The coalition argues convincingly that such aid should have been redirected to bottom-up efforts to revitalize Buffalo by helping residents and neighborhoods, not showering tax breaks on developers.

Now the coalition, working with Rise Collaborative, is looking for candidates who share its perspective as it tries to reshape a Common Council it contends has been a rubber-stamp for such efforts.

The coalition – which includes groups like Open Buffalo, PUSH Buffalo and the Partnership for the Public Good – held a workshop Tuesday night to explain its policy agenda as well as the timeline for running, the pay and other basics of competing for a Council seat.

A second workshop slated for Feb. 20 will be targeted to those who are seriously exploring a run, explaining the nuts and bolts of putting together a campaign team and circulating petitions to get on the ballot.

The coalition is looking for candidates who will "put people over profits, quite simply," said Harper Bishop, PUSH Buffalo deputy director of movement building.

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Bishop, who saw things from the inside as a staffer for former Council Member Michael LoCurto, cited issues ranging from inclusionary zoning and affordable housing to the city’s use of the state’s 485-a program that gives developers huge tax breaks if they include a single, solitary affordable apartment when converting old buildings into fancy new digs. He said it’s hard to even get a discussion, "let alone a vote," on such issues and called the Council’s approach "deeply problematic."

"People feel there’s a lack of transparency," Bishop said.

Council leaders, not surprisingly, take issue with the coalition’s assessment. While noting everyone has the right to run, Council President Darius Pridgen, who represents the Ellicott District, pointed to establishment of the Fruit Belt Community Land Trust as an example of the Council’s responsiveness.

That’s hardly enough for the coalition.

In trying to change the Council, it already has a head start. Two long-time members – Fillmore’s David Franczyk and Lovejoy’s Richard Fontana – have announced they are not seeking re-election. That means candidates, at least in those two districts, won’t have to overcome the advantages of incumbency.

In the other seven districts, name recognition, party support and funding from those who like things just the way they are now – developers, to name one such group – will make it much more of a challenge.

The coalition is still figuring out how far it can go in trying to level the playing field. Groups that are 501(c)(3) organizations can’t endorse; and with the primary election moved up to June, it’s too late for this election to form a 501(c)(4) that can promote candidates, though Bishop said that might be considered for the future.

For now, he said, they’re still hashing out such issues as whether members can provide financial support or circulate petitions for candidates who sign on to the coalition’s agenda. That platform includes everything from affordable housing and community-controlled enterprises in the face of gentrification to community policing rather than "over policing" of poor communities.

Candidates who’ve responded to the call already seem on board with a lot of that, with one, for instance, expressing "compassion for our immigrant communities" while another "would like to know how to support arts and cultural institution through such a position."

None approach the idea with stars in their eyes. As one Delaware District resident put it, "I know my chances are slim, not being deeply rooted in the local political system but it’s those kinds of things that are actually motivating me to go for it." Another would-be candidate welcomed any assistance the coalition can provide "since it is an uphill battle running against an incumbent."

The coalition’s platform evolved from a "state of Our City" gathering held in response to Mayor Byron Brown’s 2018 "state of the city" address. Now, with a call for candidates, the grassroots advocates are – as athletes like to say – taking it to the next level.

At a pivotal point in Buffalo’s development, that can only mean one thing: Game on.

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