Former Gov. Mario Cuomo made the famous observation about politics that “you campaign in poetry; you govern in prose.”
West Seneca’s new town supervisor, Gary Dickson, campaigned in prose and seems more likely to govern in spreadsheets. That seems just fine with the voters who made Dickson the town’s first Republican supervisor in 50 years.
The former FBI special agent has put an emphasis on transparency, accountability, civility and fiscal discipline. What he can deliver remains to be seen, but his goals align with what good municipal government should look like.
Even before being sworn in to office on Jan. 1, Dickson posted to his campaign Facebook page a series of five bar graphs showing fiscal challenges he is inheriting. Using data from the New York State Comptroller’s Office, the graphs showed that West Seneca has a fiscal stress score of 28.8, compared to 6.6 for all Western New York towns and 6.3 for large upstate towns. Also concerning: West Seneca’s debt services as a percent of revenue is 8.8%, compared to 4.9% for all WNY towns.
The town also has an operating deficit that is -0.4% of gross expenditures, versus 4.8% for all WNY towns.
The previous supervisor, Sheila Meegan, earned the ire of many residents by presiding – with the Town Board – over several tax increases, for the town’s outlay for a new library and community center. She also requested a raise of nearly $17,000 for herself in 2016 (she got $9,400 more), then last year proposed a 10% decrease in the supervisor’s salary in 2020, knowing she would not stand for re-election.
Dickson’s background is not in politics. He served in the U.S. Army for seven years, worked in counterintelligence and investigating corruption in a 27-year career with the FBI, and worked for JP Morgan Chase and M&T Bank, probing fraud and money laundering. He also holds a master’s degree in public policy.
He’s relatively new to West Seneca. He and his wife, Patti Stephens, moved to town about two and a half years ago. Stephens is now chairwoman of the town’s Republican Party and Dickson has been a regular face in the crowd at Town Board meetings. He has said he did not like the way that some board members treated members of the public.
Dickson won 57% of the vote in a town with almost twice as many Democrats as Republicans.
Some of his stated priorities are:
• Efficiency, by eliminating monthly work sessions for the board and combining them with regular meetings.
• Transparency, by making public all records that could be accessed under the Freedom of Information Law.
• Accountability, with department heads giving monthly updates at board meetings.
Many officials set lofty goals upon taking their oath of office, and there is always a honeymoon period. Dickson will be judged on his results more than his words. If he can deliver, West Seneca will be the better for it.