By Joyce M. Miles
The Tonawanda News
Tonawanda News — LOCKPORT — Democratic Niagara County lawmakers will unilaterally reappoint Nancy Smith as their party’s election commissioner next month.
So said Minority Caucus Leader Dennis Virtuoso, D-Niagara Falls, in the midst of a contentious Legislature session Tuesday, when Republican legislators made hay over Smith’s role in the recent firing of former North Tonawanda mayor Larry Soos, who was an election board clerk.
Virtuoso said he expected “political theater” from lawmaker Paul Wojtaszek, R-North Tonawanda, over Smith’s nomination — and Wojtaszek did not disappoint him.
The deputy majority caucus leader, who two weeks ago succeeded in getting Smith’s nomination tabled pending the outcome of a semi-secret “inquiry” he wanted into several matters involving the board of elections, motioned to untable the nomination Tuesday, then launched into a speech about why he would vote “no” to approving Smith.
The inquiry, by the legislature’s administration committee, sought answers from Smith regarding why voting results were so late coming in on Election Night and, also, why she fired Soos. The latter question was explored in executive session Nov. 27, partly under guise of pending litigation.
Soos was fired Oct. 2, the day after he quarreled with newly elected county Democratic committee Chairman Nick Forster at the party’s reorganization meeting. The state labor department initially denied Soos unemployment benefits, ruling he’d been fired for misconduct as a county employee.
Wojtaszek raised a red flag over the state’s finding, questioning whether Soos had improperly gone to the party meeting as a county employee — or been fired from a county job over politics.
On Tuesday, Wojtaszek declared that Smith “lied” to the administration committee when she was asked whether Soos’ conduct at the party meeting led to his firing.
“She said, unequivocally, no,” — but Wojtaszek later learned Smith’s written statement to the human resources office, sent after Soos applied for unemployment, said the opposite.
“The reasons cited at that time in writing (by Smith) were explicity political and not related to (Soos’) job performance,” Wojtaszek said. “She plain and simple lied to the committee. ... She violated the public trust; covered up ... at the behest of her (party) chairman.”
If Smith acted improperly, she wasn’t the only one, Virtuoso and legislator Jason Zona, D-Niagara Falls, countered.
Whenever a board employee is dismissed, both election commissioners have to sign off on the action, they said, and GOP Election Commissioner Mary Ann Casamento signed off on Soos’ termination alongside Smith — but she hasn’t been questioned.
“Cover up! That’s powerful words!” Virtuoso bellowed at Wojtaszek. “If you chastise one, you chastise both. There’s no way around it.”
Majority Leader Rick Updegrove, R-Lockport, also criticized Smith, citing a Tonawanda News report in which Soos claimed Smith had told him she was firing him at Forster’s direction.
Smith taking direction from Forster, versus the county attorney or the human resources director, “smells bad. I don’t like it,” Updegrove asserted. With Soos’ termination, the county has to pay his unemployment and also pay his replacement, he added.
Wojtaszek’s and Updegrove’s complaints about Smith are disingenuous “bull,” Zona charged. Every legislator knows that the board clerks, as well as the commissioners, are “at will” hires sponsored by their political parties, he said.
“They’re all political jobs. You can be let go for any reason,” Zona asserted. “This is simply a political witch hunt, aimed at Nick Forster, Dennis and me. (The Republicans) don’t like being questioned, and they’re lashing out at us through Nancy Smith.”
Wojtaszek moving to untable Smith’s appointment theoretically opened the door to an up-or-down approving vote by the full legislature — but the vote didn’t occur, because none of the 15 lawmakers offered a motion.
Not that it matters, since Smith can be given the job for another two years with or without GOP lawmakers’ support.
By state election law, county legislatures pretty much rubber-stamp the major political parties’ picks for county election commissioners; they don’t have any authority to appoint commissioners who are not supported by their party.
And if the full legislature doesn’t vote to appoint Smith by Dec. 19 — 30 days after the Democratic committee advanced its recommendation to the legislature clerk — then state law gives appointing power to Democratic legislators alone.
Virtuoso will make the appointing motion at the legislature’s first meeting in January, he said.
Soos, in a late Tuesday telephone interview, said he successfully appealed the labor department’s denial of unemployment benefits last week. The county didn’t send anyone to object at his Nov. 26 hearing before an administrative judge.
“I knew I was going to win. Obviously they did too,” Soos said of the
Regarding his termination from the board, Soos acknowledged it was political — and largely expected. Forster, the newly elected party chair, had vowed to do some “house cleaning” and that didn’t bode well for Soos, a known ally of former chairman Daniel Rivera.
“I figured eventually I’d get fired ... I just didn’t think it’d be the next day,” Soos said.
Soos added he’s looking for work. He sold his family’s Oliver Street bar while still mayor and is presently without employment.
Tonawanda News editor
Eric DuVall contributed to this report.