Is Byron Brown the worst mayor in America?
by Jim Heaney, editor of Investigative Post
Byron Brown’s incompetency as mayor has been on full display since the blizzard hit last Friday. The city was unprepared to handle what was coming or clean up when the snow and wind finally relented.
No snow removal plan that contemplated a blizzard.
Not enough plows and drivers.
Too few warming centers — two of which had to close because when their power failed they lacked backup generators.
No plan to police vulnerable commercial districts.
The list goes on.
Lots of common folks have been grumbling about the city’s ineptitude and the mayor’s insensitive, self-serving “I told you so” remarks. Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz amplified their discontent at a press conference Wednesday.
“The mayor’s not going to be happy to hear about it, but storm after storm after storm after storm, the city, unfortunately, is the last one to be opened, and that shouldn’t be the case,” the county executive said. “It’s embarrassing, to tell you the truth.”
“We will do what it takes in the future to ensure that our community is open as quickly as possible,” Poloncarz said. “If that means we have to hire more trucks and get more contractors and bring in more people to handle an area that Erie County has never been responsible for, we’ll do it. I just don’t want to see this anymore. I’m sick of it.”
Good for the county executive. It needed to be said.
Fact is, this is just the latest example of Brown’s incompetence. It’s been 17 years and counting.
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The mayor has been in over his head since he took office. He mismanaged city finances as soon as the control board gave him full rein a decade ago, inheriting $166 million in reserve funds and blowing through the money in just seven years.
He refused to raise property taxes to keep pace with inflation and has overseen runaway spending on police and fire while starving many other city departments for resources. Only federal COVID aid has saved the city from financial ruin — for the time being.
His police department has grown more distant from the community it serves, especially on the East Side, and has proven itself incapable of solving most homicides. Crime has decreased over the years, as it has across the county, but Buffalo continues to suffer from one of the highest violent crime rates in the nation. We also remain one of the nation’s poorest cities.
The Police Benevolent Association has a stranglehold on department operations and Brown has not pressed for reforms during negotiations. In fact, the last round of talks resulted in raises for the cops but absolutely no reforms.
The mayor dragged his feet on addressing lead poisoning, waiting years to propose a program, and then only in the face of pressure from the Common Council. In the interim, hundreds, if not several thousand children were diagnosed with lead poisoning.
The city building inspections department remains impotent, as evidenced by its mishandling — along with police — of a problem property we recently wrote about at 149 Arkansas St.
Other city operations ceased altogether, particularly those meant to keep city government accountable to its citizens. Consider the Board of Ethics, just recently constituted after lacking a quorum for two-and-a-half years. Or the Commission on Citizens’ Rights and Community Relations, which was created to investigate civil rights complaints — including police misconduct — but rarely meets or does anything beyond providing a comfortable patronage paycheck to its executive director.
Then there is the city’s response to the May 14 massacre at Tops. There has been none, unless you count the call to change the name of the East Side to East Buffalo.
The mayor’s response has been mostly rhetorical, going on national television and testifying before Congress to whine about a lack of federal resources. This from a guy whose tenure has coincided with the city’s failure to invest on the East Side or otherwise act to improve the lot of life of the city’s most vulnerable citizens. A study released a year ago by the University at Buffalo Center for Urban Studies concluded that the city’s Black residents have not made progress over the past 30 years. In some ways, they’re faring worse.
The reality is that city government has atrophied during Brown’s tenure. Governing took a back seat to politics. The mayor has acted as though his only job is to keep his job, and it shows.
Remember how many people hesitated to vote for India Walton for mayor last year because of her lack of experience? Brown presented himself as a seasoned, steady hand. I don’t know what kind of job Walton would have done, but could it have been any worse than what we’ve experienced under Brown this past year?
Buffalo has no provision to recall elected officials. If it did, I suspect the mayor wouldn’t survive a vote. As it was, he lost the primary last year and had to wage a vigorous write-in campaign to retain his job. I suspect it was the last time he broke a sweat.
So, we’re stuck with him for another three years. Brown is certain to resist any talk of having the county or state handle snow removal duties during major storms, but the Common Council should insist. It’s the least Council members can do, given their complicity in tolerating Brown’s ineptitude over the years.
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Brown’s incompetency — and that of the Council, which doesn’t so much legislate as it does rubber-stamp — demands systemic change.
A mechanism to recall elected officials would be nice. Better yet, term limits. Brown is on target to serve 20 years — an entire generation — and his predecessors served 12 and 16 years. Way too long.
Limits on campaign contributions and more stringent Hatch Act type restrictions on political activity by city employees are also in order.
So far as the next mayor goes, it’s not too early to start thinking about a successor.
State Sen. Tim Kennedy is said to have an interest, and he has a war chest to underwrite a well-funded campaign. I’ll take a pass: Brown, Tony Masiello and Jimmy Griffin all came to the mayor’s office straight from the state Senate. How has that worked out?
It’s best if someone with executive experience running a large government takes over City Hall. Given the mess that Brown will leave behind, this is no time for on-the-job training. If a seasoned politician with executive experience is not in the cards, the addition of a city manager type position is necessary.
While I’ve been critical of how Poloncarz has handled stadium negotiations with the Buffalo Bills, he has otherwise managed county government well, for the most part. He was front and center during the COVID crisis and again during the blizzard. He’s cut taxes and maintained the quality of county services.
Perhaps he should trade his county job for City Hall in three years. He’s already a city resident, so there’s no obstacle there.
Be it Poloncarz or someone else, we need competency. As it now stands, Buffalo is governed by arguably the worst big-city mayor in America. That needs to change if we’re ever to get ahead as a city and region.