Erie County ousting its OTB representative

Responding to controversies and investigations, legislators seek to replace staunch supporter of management team

The Erie County Legislature wants to replace its representative on the governing board of the embattled Western Regional Off Track Betting Corp. 

The Legislature’s Democratic majority announced its intention through a media advisory issued March 5 and is soliciting resumes from applicants. Lawmakers plan to interview candidates April 9.

Erie County’s current appointee, Beverly Mazur, has served on the OTB board since July 2010.  Like most board members, Mazur has ties to the Republican or Conservative parties. She is a former secretary of the Erie County Conservative Party who was appointed when Republicans controlled the Erie County Legislature, in league with several renegade Democrats.

Erie County legislators interviewed for this story were not critical of Mazur, saying instead that after nearly a decade in the position, her tenure had run its course. 

Like most OTB board members, Mazur almost always votes in lockstep with recommendations made by President and CEO Henry Wojtaszek, himself a GOP player as former chairman of the Niagara County Republican Committee.

Michelle Parmer-Garner, who represents the City of Buffalo, is one of the few board members with Democratic ties. She was appointed in 2015 by Mayor Byron Brown. Her husband is Maurice Garner, a close political associate of the mayor, who previously served as the city’s representative on the OTB board.

April Baskin, chairwoman of the Erie County Legislature, said she is not looking to make a partisan appointment to replace Mazur.

“The Legislature appointment needs to be honest and transparent and somebody that is going to report back to us,” she said. “I don’t want any political appointees in place.”

Resumes are due March 26. The Legislature’s Government Affairs Committee, led by Kevin Hardwick, will conduct interviews in public and make a recommendation. Hardwick has said he would seek a potential replacement with taxpayers interests “ahead of all other considerations.”

Paul Wolf, president of the Buffalo Niagara Coalition for Open Government, appeared before Baskin and other lawmakers Thursday and urged them to do more to publicize the position.

“The only way we’re going to change the investigations and political cronyism is an open, transparent process where non-politically connected people get a fair shot at applying and are considered,” Wolf told Investigative Post after his meeting with lawmakers.

Baskin said she agreed with Wolf’s suggestions concerning further advertising and would confer with her caucus about them. 

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OTB is governed by a board of representatives appointed by 15 counties and the cities of Buffalo and Rochester. OTB, a public benefit corporation created by the state Legislature 45 years ago, operates 19 betting parlors, 30 betting kiosks in restaurants and bars, and a casino and harness racing track at Batavia Downs in Genesee County.

Some $3.6 million of its profits  were distributed to the counties and cities last year with a formula based on population. Erie County was the largest recipient with $860,687.

Mazur did not respond to a phone call and email seeking her comment.

OTB documents show that in 2017, Mazur was one of 13 board members who received free health, dental and vision insurance. The coverage for board members, who also earn a $4,000 annual stipend, is a source of controversy, as both the state attorney general and lawyers hired by the board have said members are not legally entitled to it. The OTB board has not acted on that legal advice.

The coverage is one of several issues that are the subject of investigations by the FBI and the state comptroller and gaming commission.

Board members have been mum on the investigations and supportive of Wojtaszek. County legislatures in western and central New York, who appoint OTB board members, have also remained largely silent. The exception is  the Schuyler County Legislature, which passed a resolution last May calling for a state audit. County Legislator Philip Barnes, Schuyler’s representative on the OTB board, supported the resolution.  

While Erie County lawmakers move to replace their representative amid signs of unhappiness with OTB, their counterparts in Niagara County have stood by Wojtaszek and his agency. 

The Republican majority last May rejected two resolutions proposed by Democrats that called on the state comptroller to conduct an audit of OTB and for the county to file a lawsuit seeking the names of individuals who received tickets to games and concerts in luxury suites leased by OTB at KeyBank Center and New Era Field. OTB executives and board members have helped themselves to some of the tickets.

At the time, Niagara County Legislator John Syracuse, of Newfane, called scrutiny of OTB operations a “witch hunt.” 

Niagara’s representative is Elliott Winter, is the son of former OTB board member Rick Winter, a lobbyist with longstanding Republican Party ties.