The rap (sheet) on the Common Council

If only Brian Davis' crimes and Chris Scanlon's thin resume were the legislative body's only problems.
Reporting, analysis and commentary
by Jim Heaney, editor of Investigative Post

Brian Davis’s plea to federal corruption charges Tuesday comes as no surprise.

Neither does the Common Council’s appointment of a bartender to fill Mickey Kearn’s vacant seat.

Such is the state of the Common Council.

Jimmy Griffin used to call them the “Comical Council” back in the day and yes, they used to bicker a lot. But once upon a time, the Common Council had a core of stellar lawmakers—think Gene Fahey, Jim Pitts, and Dave Rutecki, among others, followed in later years by the likes of Brian Higgins and Kevin Helfer—who attempted to deal with serious issues and function as a check and balance on executive power.

Those days are definitely past tense.

Witness the appointment of Chris Scanlon to succeed Kearns.

The council went through two rounds of applicants and considered more than a dozen candidates before settling on Scanlon. Assorted front-runners were tossed for failing to live in the district, allegations of serving prison time, and refusing to align with the majority block in exchange for the appointment.

Scanlon, during a brief, anxious appearance before the Council in which only two members asked him questions, said he represented a new generation of leadership.

“The people of the district are looking for a young, independent thinker devoid of ties, someone not looking to appease political factions, but looking for someone who can think on their own, vote their conscience and only do what’s in the best interest of South Buffalo,” he said.

New blood? Really?

Consider that Scanlon is the son of John “Scanoots” Scanlon, Griffin’s patronage chief whose work history suggested he either worked long, long hours or had himself a no-show job or two.

Further consider the numerous Scanlons on the city payroll.

Also keep in mind that Scanoots has given Brown’s campaign committees $1,640 since 2007 and kicked in another $100 to a Brown-controlled committee used to finance candidates friendly to the mayor.

So much for being “devoid of ties.”

How does the young Scanlon stand on his own?

His resume gives no hint of civic engagement, unless the Bishop Timon Lawn Fete counts. His employment in the private sector could be a plus until you consider he’s been a bartender and assistant bar manager.

Then there’s the matter of his conviction in 2007 of driving while impaired, for which he lost his license for 21 months and paid a $300 fine. Less than a year after getting his license back, he was ticketed for driving an uninspected vehicle, charges that were eventually dismissed.

You would think the majority that selected Scanlon, lead by Council President Richard Fontana and Majority Leader Demone Smith, was through when they appointed Scanlon. They weren’t.

In short order, Fontana stripped Michael LoCurto of his post as Finance Committee chairman and gave the position—and its $1,000 stipend—to Scanlon. Apparently being able to work the cash register at Colter Bay was sufficient experience for Fontana to give Scanlon the task of running the panel that oversees $480 million in city spending.

But hey, it’s not like anyone needs to keep a close eye on city finances. I mean, Davis only stole $48,000 in public funds, according to the plea he copped in federal court on Tuesday.

No one is surprised by this. Nor should they. Not when you consider Davis’s history.

He warmed up for public office by failing to pay state income taxes and declaring bankruptcy. To buttress his resume, he lied about obtaining a college degree. Once in office, he stiffed on paying some $22,000 in bills, lost his driver’s license for failing to keep his insurance, repeatedly failed to disclose his campaign finances to the Board of Elections, and managed to get himself a house built in a tax-free zone he helped set up.

But when you’re a member of the Common Council, that doesn’t disqualify you from holding public office. In fact, it gets you an extra gig, as president of Community Action Organization, a lavishly funded social service agency whose payroll is liberally populated by members of Grassroots Inc., the political club that spawned Byron Brown.

You’re also not disqualified if you scheme to direct city funds to One Sunset, the notoriously failed bar, or writing a bad check to help the owner cover the rent.

No, only when an investigation by the District Attorney and State Police determined he converted campaign funds to personal use and lied on reports filed with the Board of Elections did Davis find it necessary to leave public office.

Now comes his admission that he steered federal funds through his office to several nonprofit organizations in his district and then pocketed some of the proceeds. I don’t know which is more outrageous, the crime or the fact that under federal sentencing guidelines, Davis is facing the prospect of no more than 16 months in jail.

The real problem with the Council isn’t the corrupt actions of one member, or the thin resume of another, although they certainly convey something about the quality of body. I mean, keep in mind that there continues to be no consequence from Smith’s repeated failure to obey state election laws and pay fines for his non-compliance. Not unless you consider his election as majority leader, and its $5,000 stipend, as punishment.

No, the real problem is the Council’s ineffectiveness. Year after year, it rubber stamps the mayor’s proposed operating and block grant budget, tinkering only enough to steer a little money the Council’s way for pet projects.

When is the last time the Council initiated and passed a major piece of legislation, something that addressed the myriad of problems this city faces and the administration ignores?

About the only time the Council musters any energy is to fight among itself over largely petty issues, often involving personnel. As if the citizenry really cares about who gets jobs in the City Clerk’s office or Common Council central office.

That’s not to say the Council is devoid of talent. It has some capable members. But the whole is less than the sum of its parts. And has been for some time.

What’s it going to take for things to change?

It would help if the Democratic Party cared more about the quality of candidates it endorses, given Buffalo is a one-party town. An infusion of candidates whose credentials go beyond tending bar or working for a politician would be good, too.

The last time we had a good Council, it was populated by former activists with roots in community-based organizations. They were the proving ground where the likes of Gene Fahey and Jim Pitts cut their teeth.

Buffalo has a new generation of talented, energetic activists, like one we haven’t seen since at least the 1970s. Aaron Bartley of PUSH is the best known of them, but there are more of them and their numbers are growing. They’re doing good work rebuilding neighborhoods, taking on polluters and boosting a home-grown economy.

Some of them need to make the leap to electoral politics. Until they do, the Chris Scanlons of the world are as close as we’re going to come to new blood.