The City of Buffalo Charter (its “constitution”) creates two systems of checks and balances at City Hall:
First, the Mayor is given executive and administrative powers, while all “legislative power” – that is, the power to enact local laws and ordinances in accordance with the state constitution and laws – is placed (at least, officially) in the hands of the Common Council.
Second, the Charter creates the position of City Comptroller, and makes the Comptroller “head of the department of audit and control.” Unlike the other city department heads – who are all appointed by the Mayor, confirmed by the Common Council, and serve at the pleasure of the Mayor – the City Comptroller is an elected office, chosen citywide by the voters every four years. This arrangement helps ensure that the Comptroller functions independently from the Mayor and Common Council, and can serve city residents and taxpayers as an independent “fiscal watchdog.”
As the Buffalo News editorial board recently observed, the office of Comptroller demands “checks and balances,” and the woman or man holding the position “must be independent enough to challenge any mayor on finances when appropriate.”
I believe that it is more critical than ever that the City Comptroller be an effective, independent watchdog. That’s all we Buffalonians currently have. The Common Council has effectively set aside its role as a counter-weight to Mayor Byron W. Brown and his administration. To an unhealthy and unacceptable extent, our councilmembers acquiesce to the Mayor’s office and administrative appointees when it comes to formulating policy and identifying a vision for the Queen City’s future. Absent are signs of the meaningful checks and balances envisioned by the Charter between the executive/administrative and legislative branches.
A prime example of our docile legislature was the Common Council’s belated and ineffective role in drafting, assessing, and enacting the city’s most significant “legislative” initiative in decades, the Uniform Development Ordinance (UDO), known informally as the “Green Code.” [Note: I have previously expressed my thoughts on this topic at an October 2015 post,]
An independent City Comptroller is now the sole source of effective checks and balances at City Hall. But that independence is threatened when a vacancy occurs in the midst of a four-year term, and the Common Council, and not the voters, fills the empty seat. That is precisely where we find ourselves now.
The City Comptroller position has been vacant since February 1st when Mark J.F. Schroeder, who had been tenaciously serving as Comptroller since 2012, resigned to become head of New York’s motor vehicle department. [Full disclosure: I supported Mark in his 2017 mayoral campaign against Byron Brown. See https://withallduerespectblog.com/2017/09/08/why-im-voting-for-mark-schroeder-on-september-12th/.]
As a result of the opening, behind-the-scenes maneuvering is taking place. In the words of veteran Buffalo News political columnist Bob McCarthy, “Political intrigue is stalking City Hall this week… and angling is underway to fill the vacant comptroller’s office.” Not surprisingly, Mayor Byron Brown and his Democratic allies are intent on assuring that Mark Schroeder’s successor will not be another thorn in the mayor’s side. In an apparent step to ensure a harmonious and passive relationship between the next Comptroller and Mayor, local Democratic party leaders selected Erie County Legislator Barbara Miller-Williams as the party’s nominee to replace the vigilant Mark Schroeder.
I am not professionally or personally familiar with Miller-Williams’ multi-faceted career, other than what I have read in newspapers and researched on-line. According to her biography, prior to her position as a county legislator, she served on the city’s Common Council, and is both a retired Buffalo police officer and a retiree of the U.S. Army Reserve. Ms. Miller-Williams holds both a B.S. degree in business administration, and Masters in Higher Education and Student Affairs Administration. Notably, she is not a certified public accountant (although one need not be a CPA to meet the Charter’s qualification for the Comptroller position).
I am not questioning Miller-Williams’ integrity, or diminishing her many accomplishments. However, while she promises an open and transparent relationship with the Brown administration, I have deep reservations regarding her independence and willingness to challenge either Byron Brown or her former Common Council colleagues. Here’s why:
– According to the Buffalo News, Barbara Miller-Williams “has reached a number of political milestones with [Mayor Byron] Brown’s help.”
– NYS Board of Elections records show that the Mayor’s “Brown for Buffalo” committee contributed nearly $2,000 to Miller-Williams’ county legislator campaign in 2011, and made additional contributions totaling $950 between 2013 and 2015.
– The Buffalo News also reports that Miller-Williams is “part of the Grassroots political club that has worked to elect dozens of politicians over the past three decades, including Mayor Byron W. Brown.”
– According to NYS Board of Elections records, “Brown for Buffalo” donated nearly $14, 000 to the Grassroots organization between 2013 and 2017.
City Hall under Mayor Brown’s leadership is a secretive and, at times, intimidating place. It is understandable, when reviewing the following powers and duties the Charter vests in the City Comptroller, why Byron Brown and his allies on the Common Council would strongly prefer not to have an independent fiscal watchdog in their midst:
– The comptroller has unrestricted access to all employees, officials, offices, records, reports, files, and information and things of whatever nature as needed to carry out the comptroller’s duties, and possesses the power to investigate and to enforce by subpoena the attendance of witnesses or the production of document at such investigation.
– The comptroller has the power to conduct performance audits of all bureaus, offices, departments, boards, commissions, activities, functions, programs, agencies and other entities or services of the city to determine whether their activities and programs are: (i) conducted in compliance with applicable law and regulation; and (ii) conducted efficiently and effectively to accomplish their intended objectives.
– If the comptroller detects apparent violations of law or malfeasance or nonfeasance by an officer or employee, or information that indicates derelictions may be reasonably anticipated, the comptroller has the duty to report the irregularities to the council and the mayor, and, if the irregularity is potentially criminal in nature, to also notify the district attorney.
– The comptroller is obliged to submit to the common council, on or before the tenth day of May each year, a report assessing the accuracy of the revenue and expenditure estimates of the budget the mayor submits to the council.
– The comptroller has the authority to hire an independent consultant to conduct an audit of the performance of the common council staff every two years.
– The Charter provides the comptroller with the power to appoint, remove at his or her pleasure, and supervise the deputy comptroller, the city auditor, city accountant, and the investment and debt management officer.
– The comptroller has the duty to examine, audit and settle accounts of all officers, departments, boards commissions and other agencies of the city.
– The comptroller also has the power to conduct financial and performance audits of all agencies and other entities a majority of whose members are appointed by city officials (most frequently, the Mayor) or that derive at least fifty percent of their revenue from the city.
[Note: Additionally, pursuant to Section 34-a of the General Municipal Law of the State of New York, the Buffalo City Comptroller has the power to examine into the financial affairs of the Buffalo public school district and audit all school district accounts as the comptroller deems necessary.]
Clearly, given the breadth and depth of the City Comptroller’s authority and responsibilities, the position of Comptroller was created to provide Buffalo’s residents and taxpayers with an effective a fiscal watchdog at City Hall. As expressed in a recent Buffalo News editorial, “Buffalo needs another fiscal watchdog who makes protecting the taxpayers a higher priority than keeping the political waters calm.”
The Common Council must vote no later than April 27 to appoint Mark Schroeder’s interim successor. It may be tempting for councilmembers who are affiliated with Grassroots, or who have received substantial political contributions from “Brown for Buffalo” over the years – including Joe Golombek ($4,702.50), Joel Feroleto ($1,250), and Ulysees Wingo ($1,000) – to simply give their vote to Mayor Brown’s long-time ally, Ms. Miller-Williams. But, we, Buffalo’s residents and taxpayers, must demand that each and every councilmember honestly and objectively give full consideration to all the candidates for the Comptroller vacancy, and, in the words of the Buffalo News editorial board, “[C]hoose a new comptroller who is independent enough to challenge the Brown administration on finances when it needs to be challenged.”
At last count, in addition to Miller-Williams, five individuals have submitted applications for appointment to the Comptroller’s seat:
* Vanessa A. Glushefski, who is a lawyer and the only CPA in the group. Ms. Glushefski was appointed by Schroeder as Deputy Comptroller, and is currently serving as Acting Comptroller.
* Common Council Member Richard A. Fontana, a seven-term representative of the City’s Lovejoy district.
* Patrick J. Curry, served seven years as Schroeder’s spokesperson and executive assistant.
* Jonathan D. Rivera, who works as an assistant to the commissioner of Erie County’s public works department.
* Scott J. Wilson, Jr., a college student who spent several years working in the Comptroller’s office in early 2018.
With All Due Respect,
P.S. I believe that these are current email addresses for Common Council members:
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