Buffalo’s firefighting fleet
Last year’s Christmas blizzard, which killed 47 people, exposed weaknesses in governmental capacity to navigate emergencies. The storm compelled the City of Buffalo, in particular, to confront numerous shortcomings, including inadequate investment in equipment for first responders.
As it happened, we’d been investigating the condition of the city’s firefighting fleet in the weeks before the storm hit.
We published our findings in January: Over the past dozen years, Mayor Byron Brown and the Common Council failed to invest in new fire trucks as they aged out. The result was a ramshackle fleet that sometimes failed firefighters even in good weather.
The accompanying report for WGRZ News was the most popular story of the year on our YouTube channel, garnering 125,000 views:
In the aftermath, the Council authorized the Brown administration to borrow money for two new ladders and two new pumpers. Outgoing fire union president Vinnie Ventresca told Investigative Post last week those had yet to be ordered, however, meaning the custom-built trucks might not arrive until 2025.
The department also jumped on a bargain — a 26-year-old ladder truck that one trade publication noted is older than some of the city’s firefighters. It hasn’t arrived yet, either. The department took delivery of two vehicles ordered well before the storm and our reporting cast an unflattering light on the fleet’s condition. The aging vehicles they were meant to replace are still in service, just shuffled to other firehouses, Ventresca said.
The Brown administration has not committed to the thing the fire union wants most: a standing order to purchase two new pumpers and a new ladder truck each year, at a combined cost of about $2.5 million to $3 million.
Roswell Park and Michael Joseph
In February, we told the story of Dr. Anne Grand’Maison, who filed a federal lawsuit accusing Roswell Park Cancer Center of workplace discrimination that “put numerous patients in serious danger,” she said. Hers is one of more than a dozen lawsuits filed in the last eight years by Roswell doctors and other employees alleging workplace discrimination based on gender, race or disability.
It turned out a faction on Roswell’s board had issues with the way management dealt with such claims, especially those involving racial discrimination. We reported on that, too, and on a study of the issue Roswell’s board commissioned, then concealed.
Coincidentally, we also reported on a federal lawsuit that claims the real-estate company headed by Roswell’s longtime board chair, Michael Joseph, “intentionally engaged in illegal race-based housing discrimination by refusing to develop housing in or near Black neighborhoods.”
The former Clover Group employee who brought the suit recorded meetings in which Joseph’s top executives used the code word “Canadians” and “the Canadian factor” to refer to Black people:
Another former Clover employee filed a lawsuit shortly thereafter, making the same claims as the first.
The outcome: Joseph resigned as Roswell’s board chair. Gov. Kathy Hochul appointed Leecia Eve — a Black woman — to take his place. (Joseph and his wife remain on the board of the AKG Art Gallery.) Eve promised “unprecedented … transparency and accountability” at Roswell going forward — which, you know, we’ll see. The various lawsuits are creeping through the courts.
Patronage job for the mayor’s son
Speaking of transparency: In August, I learned that Mayor Byron Brown’s son had quietly been installed as the new press information officer at the Buffalo Sewer Authority, an agency the mayor controls through board appointments.
When we asked the sewer authority to confirm the appointment, we were told to file a formal request under the state’s Freedom of Information law.
To learn the identity of the agency’s liaison with the news media.
We didn’t need to do that, because we’d confirmed the appointment by other means. But the absurdity of the sewer authority’s stonewalling made the story, and the nepotism, far more embarrassing for the mayor.
The upshot: The younger Brown continues to collect that sweet government paycheck, though it’s not clear what he does. The sewer authority hasn’t published a press release on its website since he was hired. And he was invisible when three sewer authority employees were shot on the I-190 in October, one of them fatally, an incident that drew intense media coverage.
Farewell, Jill …
In 2016, the city accused fire department clerk Jill Repman of padding her paycheck by tampering illegally with federal withholding. She was suspended with pay pending hearings to determine her fate.
After a year or so, however, city attorneys stopped pursuing the charges.
But the city kept paying her. She collected nearly $600,000 over seven and half years, even though she wasn’t reporting to fire department headquarters anymore. Even though she’d taken another job in the private sector.
Thank you, Jill, for our most-read story of 2023.
It was a bear to report, mostly due to the recalcitrance of Brown administration officials and Repman’s union:
As a result of our reporting, the Brown administration ordered Repman back to work.
She did not come back to work. Instead, she used accumulated paid vacation, sick and personal days to stay out of the office for three months.
At the end of November she retired with enough years on the job — more than a quarter of them on paid leave — to collect a healthy state pension.
The Common Council — most notably the Fillmore District’s Mitch Nowakowski, who chairs the Civil Service Committee — demanded answers: How prevalent and expensive to the city is extended paid leave? How and why was Repman allowed to remain on the payroll for so long?
The mayor stammered and stuttered, then announced a new reporting process to track employees on paid leave. Early examples of the new process have been underwhelming.
The city comptroller promised an investigation, which is seven weeks overdue. Before the holiday break, frustrated by the comptroller’s delays, Nowakowski asked the state comptroller to step in and investigate.
If the state comptroller’s auditors decide to pick up the thread, they’ll find us in pursuit, too. Jill may be gone, but her story is not forgotten.