Tonawanda News

November 1, 2013

OUR VIEW: City of Tonawanda candidate endorsements

By the News Editorial Board
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — For mayor

Again, we have an interesting — and hard-fought — campaign for mayor of the City of Tonawanda. Again, we have Ron Pilozzi, the two-term incumbent going up against challenger Rick Davis.

Four years ago we recommended voters stick with Pilozzi and that they did. 

Four years ago we were arguing about whether to build homes on Little League Drive. We were debating what to do since Spaulding Fibre was finally dismantled. There were questions about downtown development and city taxes.

And here we are, four years later still having those same debates. Groundhog’s Day, anyone?

For that reason alone voters would be wise to change course. In fact, we suggest they do — and that’s why we’re endorsing Rick Davis for mayor.

We would be remiss if we didn’t address head-on the questions over the Little League Drive development proposal. The mayor’s administration has hired a smart and well-versed development lawyer, Larry Rubin, to hammer out a deal that, on paper, will benefit the city’s bottom line. 

The deal does not, however, address a basic question of fairness: In a city with a median home value of $90,000, how can you ask residents here to allow the owners of new homes, some worth triple the existing ones, to pay only 65 percent of the real property value in local taxes?

We share in some of the reservations Davis and his Democratic ticket have expressed when it comes to the cost savings the city will see by virtue of making the developer pay to install the necessary infrastructure and turn over the eventual repair costs to a homeowners’ association. Fixing a sewer line is one thing but residents in the development won’t be using 35 percent less police and fire protection. Their children won’t attend 35 percent fewer classes in our schools.

We do, however, share some of the optimism the mayor’s team expresses about the deal. Yes, some revenue is better than no revenue. And we agree after this much time there’s probably no better deal to be had. 

The question remains: Is the deal good enough? More than any other issue, voters’ feelings on the topic are likely to drive their choices Tuesday.

But there’s a better argument for electing Rick Davis than unease over one issue. This entire campaign feels like a defense of Pilozzi’s record. What’s missing in that? His vision for the next four years.

On this front we have a clear winner. Where Pilozzi’s pitch for another term feels staid or static we see an energetic, community-focused campaign from Davis. He’s articulated a vision for what the City of Tonawanda needs to become and we like what he sees.

They say a picture speaks a thousand words: The images of the two candidates that appeared on our front page last week profiling the race summed things up nicely. We gave both candidates the option of having their picture taken on the campaign trail — but only one took advantage. You saw Rick Davis knocking on doors talking to voters and Ron Pilozzi behind a desk. Sort of says it all, doesn’t it?

The mayor has had a decent eight-year run in office and several projects for which he can claim credit. But in our view it’s time for a change.

For the First Ward

In the First Ward we have a former councilman, Republican Chuck Gilbert, running to reclaim a seat he lost two years ago. He’s going up against Paul Brunner, a Democrat and first-time candidate.

We found Gilbert to be an amiable and responsive councilman the first time around and advocated for his candidacy. After watching their performances in our debate we’re recommending voters in the First Ward return Gilbert to a seat on the council.

Chuck showed an ability to work with other elected officials of both parties. 

A telling bit from our debate: Candidates were made aware in advance they could bring with them any notes they prepared ahead of time. Gilbert showed up with a binder full. Brunner came empty-handed to an open book test and shot from the hip. While Brunner displayed a fair grasp of the issues, raising a particularly good point about why more hasn’t been done to alleviate flooding in their part of the city, preparation and professionalism matter.

Gilbert has displayed both in the past as well as during this campaign. For that reason he earns our endorsement.

For the Second Ward

This race more than any other has generated some controversy. Democrat Jackie Smilinich, a longtime school board member and leader of that body, is running against Jon Juliano a Republican running for the first time.

Juliano acquitted himself well and spoke clearly and confidently on the issues. He cleared the bar for a candidate with no track record to judge.

In Smilinich’s case we have a long record to examine from her time on what, at points, was a downright dysfunctional school board. Certainly it would be unfair to lay all the squabbling and wasted energy at Jackie’s feet. The personalities running that district clashed and assigning blame to one individual is impossible.

Still, we worry her approach, which at times was certainly combative, won’t translate well to a city council that has no small amount of important and controversial decisions to make. 

With the right mix of candidates this council could work cooperatively and on behalf of residents. With the wrong mix it could devolve into a sideshow that stymies progress.

Jon Juliano is the safer choice and we recommend voters give this first-timer a chance to see what he can do.

For the Third Ward

Here we have another first-time candidate, Republican John “Jay” Hall, a longtime city employee and youth baseball coach going up against two-term incumbent Richard Slisz.

Slisz has found himself in the middle of the fray on the Little League Drive debate from the beginning. He led the effort to scuttle an original deal and the resulting one was better. For this he deserves credit.

But we have our reservations. Slisz ran four years ago in opposition to increased assessments in the River View neighborhood where he lives. Four years later he stands in opposition to a development that will only pay 65 percent of real property value because he thinks its a bad deal for taxpayers. Which is it, councilman?

And on the issue of the Niawanda Park pavilion, again Slisz was opposed despite a majority of the money coming from outside grants. He says it’s costing city taxpayers money but the pavilion has proven a popular community resource. Even if it does cost the city some cash, efficiency isn’t the only mark of good government if residents are happy to pay for the service.

By contrast, Hall is a known and well-liked member of the community. He showed some vision for a sports complex in the city that could build on the existing services for young people here and that’s a big plus. More than any Republican running, he seemed to express some reservations about Little League Drive, though on balance he said he would support it.

It’s close but we endorse Jay Hall in the Third Ward.

For the Fourth Ward

It’s difficult to recall a time when one candidate’s letter to the editor did more damage to his campaign than the one written by Fourth Ward Republican candidate Brian Jopp. He wrote us proclaiming he had no intention of walking the streets in his neighborhood to “insincerely ask you what I can do for you.”

Here’s a novel thought: How about sincerely asking what you can do? Isn’t that why they call it public service?

Perhaps Jopp finds it noble to state he doesn’t want to schmooze for votes but it begs a question: If a candidate for elective office can’t be bothered to solicit the opinions of his neighbors and would-be constituents when he’s asking for their vote what faith can we have he’ll be a responsive representative if they give it to him?

Thankfully we have a candidate in Democrat Jenna Koch who displays the opposite qualities and voters should absolutely reward her with a seat on the council.

Koch has been an active and engaged campaigner. She’s put forth the effort to meet and talk to residents in the city and we have every faith she would continue to do so if elected. It showed in our candidate forum. She did not sound like a first-time candidate and came off every bit a confident and capable individual. She earns a ringing endorsement for the Fourth Ward.

A NOTE ON THE PROCESS • The Tonawanda News editorial board, members of which are listed in the masthead on this page, evaluated a variety of factors in reaching a consensus on these endorsements. Candidates' responses during our debate factored in heavily. We also took into consideration any submissions candidates made to this page, our news coverage of this election and, where applicable, a candidate's history in public service.