By Joyce M. Miles
The Tonawanda News
Tonawanda News — LOCKPORT — A Republican lawmaker’s requested “inquiry” into recent events at the Niagara County Board of Elections was launched partly behind closed doors Tuesday.
Legislator Paul Wojtaszek, R-North Tonawanda, last week got a party-line vote to table reappointment of longtime Democratic Election Commissioner Nancy Smith. He requested the legislature’s administration committee, which oversees the board of elections, make an “informal inquiry” into why the board’s online vote reporting system crashed on Election Night — and also whether former North Tonawanda mayor Lawrence Soos, a board clerk fired by Smith, had been acting as a county employee at the county Democratic Committee’s Oct. 1 reorganization meeting.
The administration committee questioned Smith in an executive session called under cover of “a personnel matter” and “pending litigation.” Wojtaszek said afterward that he had questions for Smith — and county human resources director Peter Lopes — regarding how the state Department of Labor came to the conclusion that Soos was terminated for cause, as a county employee, and therefore would be denied unemployment benefits even though he was attending an event as a member of the Democratic party with no apparent connection to his day job at the elections board.
Soos was fired by Smith the day after the Oct. 1 reorganization meeting of the Democratic Committee, at which Soos and Nick Forster had quarreled. Forster was elected chairman after Soos, second vice chairman, backed another candidate, North Tonawanda attorney Jeremy Schnurr.
After he was denied unemployment benefits by the county, Soos put lawmakers on notice he might sue for wrongful termination. He was not acting as a county employee at the meeting, he told the Tonawanda News earlier this month.
Soos declined an invitation to speak with the administration committee about the matter Tuesday.
Wojtaszek said he believes Soos was not acting as a county employee at the Democratic meeting — and the point of his inquiry is to find out “how, where, the Department of Labor got that information.”
“Many,” but not all, of his questions were answered in the executive session, he said afterward.
The matter of Smith’s renomination is in Democratic legislators’ hands. According to Legislature Chairman Bill Ross, C-Wheatfield, Majority Leader Dennis Virtuoso, D-Niagara Falls, is free to put Smith’s nomination up to a vote of the full Legislature next week.
By state law, county legislatures pretty much rubber-stamp the major political parties’ picks for county election commissioners; they don’t have any authority to name commissioners who are not supported by their party.
The county Democratic committee “filed” its recommendation of Smith with the legislature clerk Nov. 20. If the full legislature doesn’t vote to appoint her within 30 days, Democratic legislators alone can appoint her.
If there’s no show of support for Smith from the Republican-led caucus, Virtuoso said his three-member minority caucus will do just that. Wojtaszek’s questions of Smith have a “phony” ring to them, he charged.
“Both commissioners signed off on (Soos’) termination. One alone can’t do it, but only one is being questioned about it now,” Virtuoso said. “They’re playing politics.”