Considering Mark Poloncarz

Reporting, analysis and commentary
by Jim Heaney, editor of Investigative Post

I’ve been on the airwaves the past week discussing Mark Poloncarz – his demeanor, his job performance, his supposed mandate.

I appeared Sunday with Steve Brown on Outrages & Insights, my weekly video blog on WGRZ. I was interviewed last week at greater length by Susan Arbetter for a segment of The Capitol Pressroom that broadcasts on 20 public radio stations across upstate, including WBFO.

I used to hold Poloncarz in relatively high regard, but have soured on him over the past year. Yes, he is smart (although thin skinned, and sometimes downright prickly). And he can be more forthcoming than your typical politician (when he wants to be). And he has certainly displayed competency in handling a number of issues, including the Bills’ stadium situation, during his four years as county executive.

But several stories Charlotte Keith has done on the county Department of Social Services raise questions about his management of the department that accounts for about three-quarters of the county’s budget.

In July, Charlotte reported that Child Protective Services was doing a poor job of investigating allegations of child abuse and neglect in a timely fashion. Poloncarz’s response was to duck an interview before the story was published and to deny there was a problem afterwards. In between, his staff employed some pretty unsavory tactics against my reporter.

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Listen to Heaney interview on Capitol Pressroom, starting at 21:57

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All the county executive needed to do was acknowledge there was a problem and that his team was working to correct it. In fact, the county had been making progress leading up to the story, just not enough of it – not nearly enough. But rather than own up to the shortcomings, he denied them.

That the story broke during the election season might explain his stance, but it doesn’t excuse it, given that the welfare of the most vulnerable of the vulnerable is at stake.

More recently, Charlotte reported about an audit completed by the Erie County Comptroller’s office that backed up a story she had previously reported regarding the Buffalo Urban League, which holds seven contracts with the county. The audit found the Urban League had overbilled the county on one of the contracts, failed to properly train employees whose duties included reporting allegations of child abuse, and failed to secure confidential records of clients.

And, if that wasn’t enough, the audit found the Urban League had run off all eight whistleblowers who had brought the problem to the comptroller’s attention.

And, if that wasn’t enough, the comptroller’s office also noted a lack of cooperation from the Department of Social Services – i.e., the Poloncarz administration – during the course of the investigation.

But wait, there’s still more. It just so happens that Brenda McDuffie, president of the Buffalo Urban League, is also chairperson of the Erie County Industrial Development Agency, thanks in part to support from Poloncarz. I wrote last month, that given the Urban League’s misdeeds, McDuffie should step down or be removed from her IDA post. What we’ve gotten from Poloncarz is, to quote Simon and Garfunkel, the Sound of Silence.

The way I look at it, CPS isn’t working well and there seems to be insufficient interest in holding county contractors like the Urban League accountable. So just how good of a job is the Poloncarz administration doing with the Department of Social Services?

Not very.

And if he’s not running the county’s costliest department well, how good of a job is Poloncarz really doing as county executive?

Again, not very. Sorry, but more than anything, Poloncarz is chairman of a large social services agency that isn’t functioning as well as it should.

Steve Brown asked me during our interview for a grade. I gave Poloncarz a C minus.

Nevertheless,  he won re-election rather handily in November. That’s what a weak opponent and low voter turnout will do for an incumbent. Poloncarz quickly declared he had won a “mandate” from the electorate.

A mandate?

Only 26.5 percent of registered voters turned out. Sixty-six percent voted for Poloncarz. Impressive, until you do the math, which shows only about 16.8 percent of registered voters cast a ballot for the incumbent. Declaring a mandate under those circumstances is like being the top-rated TV program on at 2 in the morning and declaring you’re a ratings sensation.

The county executive has also started terming himself a “progressive.” Sorry, but someone who accepted $29,500 in campaign donations the past two years from Carl Paladino and companies he owns is hardly a progressive. And calling out Joe Mascia for his racist remarks while remaining silent in the face of Paladino’s racial provocations is downright hypocritical.

Poloncarz also fancies himself as a subsidy reformer. He’s talked a good game, but he has come up small when billionaires have come knocking on the IDA’s door looking for a handout. First there was $36.7 million in tax breaks for Terry Pegula’s HarborCenter, then $10.6 million in tax breaks for a new office building built by Uniland Development to house Jeremy Jacob’s Delaware North.

Yeah, Poloncarz is tough on subsidy seekers. When they own a pizzeria. Not so much when they’re billionaires.

I could go on – you remember him getting his brother the chef a series of patronage jobs? – but you get the picture.

Again, he’s a smart guy, and I like the way he’s handled certain issues. But on balance, I find his tenure to be underwhelming. He’s capable of better, and frankly, the county needs better.