Tonawanda News

November 6, 2013

Four fresh faces on city's council|

By Jessica Bagley
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — Voters elected four fresh faces to the City of Tonawanda Common Council Tuesday, as two incumbents lost their attempts to retain their seats and two others previously stepped down. 

The council will have Republican representation again, as First Ward candidate Chuck Gilbert, a one-term councilman, won over Democrat Paul Brunner by a margin of 565-306 votes.

Another Republican, John “Jay” Hall, won the Third Ward seat over two-term Councilman Richard Slisz, who narrowly won his 2011 bid. Although the Erie County Board of Elections did not publish final results as of deadline, the Democratic Party said Hall won by a 552-340 margin. 

“It’s up to you guys to carry the torch,” chair of the local Republican Party, Christine Pilozzi, said at a gathering Tuesday night. “Go get ‘em.” 

The Second Ward race was too close to call Tuesday night. Democrats said their candidate, Jackie Smilinich, had three votes on Republican Jon Juliano. As of deadline, the Erie County Board of Elections had the count as 259-254 in Juliano’s favor with half of the districts reporting. In the Fourth Ward, Democrat Jenna Koch won handily over Brian Jopp, by a margin of 846-253, according to the Democratic Party. 

“I’ve never had a crew that worked this hard, and I’m looking forward to seeing the work that they are able to accomplish,” Gayle Syposs, the head of the local Democratic Party, said. 

Voters were offered a clear choice between the two parties, with the plans to develop the 16.94-acre Little League Drive property into 53 homes as the main issue dividing local Republican and Democratic candidates ahead of Tuesday’s election. 

Republicans argued that the city would benefit from increased tax revenue from the homes, and that the developer’s commitment to pay the $1.8 million in infrastructure costs made the project worthwhile. But Democrats argued against the plans for a tax abatement and condominium status that will result in the homes only being assessed at about 65 percent of their construction value. 

Four votes are required to sell the land, and the project may rest with the current council and Gilbert, who is slated to take over the vacant First Ward seat starting this month. 

Gilbert, a one-term councilman and electrician, and Brunner, a former director of a housing nonprofit in Buffalo, faced off over flooding problems in the city. Residents in the area have had sewer flooding frequently for years, but the city’s revamping of infrastructure won’t take place in 2015. Work is now taking place near the Spaulding Fiber site and the Little League Drive property instead.

Brunner argued that the city should be paying closer attention to the First Ward, while Gilbert said the current plan is necessary for the city’s development.

Gilbert said Tuesday that the victory was bittersweet due to Mayor Ron Pilozzi’s loss.

“My goal is to stabilize the tax base, and fight to get new revenue in,” he said. “I’m ready to go.” 

Brunner noted that it was his first attempt at a political seat and that he entered the race late.

“Gilbert ran a clean campaign, and I’m still going to be involved in the city and help improve it,” he said. 

In the Second Ward, current Councilman Blake Boyle lost his Democratic endorsement to Smilinich and didn’t appear on the ballot. Smilinich, a former school board president, ran against Juliano, a political newcomer who works for an accounts receivable company. 

Smilinich argued that her background on the board and her familiarity with the city’s issues would serve her well in the council, while Juliano criticized the district’s tax increase that she stood behind.

The two have disagreed over People Inc.’s plans to develop Highland School into 38 low-income apartments. The city zoning board has denied a variance request from the organization, and Smilinich said she supports the body’s decision. Juliano said the project would bring new residents to the city and help grow local businesses. 

Both candidates said they are optimistic that the absentee ballots will carry them through. 

“We’re just crossing our fingers and hoping it goes our way,” Smilinich said. 

In the Third Ward, two-term Councilman Slisz defended his seat against Hall, a former Department of Public Works employee and youth athletics coach. In addition to the housing development, the two argued over the plans for Central School, another vacant district building.

Although the school’s sale is up for a referendum at the end of the month, some residents argued that the building should be turned over to the city and transformed into a community center. Slisz supported that project, but Hall said the building was in need of too many repairs and renovations for the proposal to make financial sense. 

Hall said Tuesday that he plans to use his connections for a number of initiatives, including a potential sporting facility at the Spaulding Fiber site. 

“We need to start working closer with schools to better them and attract people here,” he said Tuesday.

Slisz said he was not disappointed by the results.

“As my wife said, now we can be normal again, and I can start to enjoy myself,” he said. “This loss is not a loss to me. It’s saying, ‘hey, you’re getting old.’”

In the Fourth Ward, two newcomers, Koch and Jopp, also disagreed over the city’s plans for Little League Drive. Koch, a human resources manager, and Jopp, a president of a local video entertainment company, both called for pressure on Tonawanda Coke. 

Jopp said he wishes Koch the best.

“Jenna is very passionate about this city and I am confident she will be an excellent council member,” he said.

Koch thanked her family and the residents for their support.

“The voters made a pretty astounding decision,” she said. 

Contact reporterJessica Bagley at 693-1000 ext. 4150, or follow her on Twitter @JessicaLBagley.