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As pay soars upward at City Hall, Dyster's secret fund found dead by dose of sunlight

December 23 , 2008

By Frank Parlato Jr.

Frank Parlato Jr.

Mayor Paul Dyster came to City Hall with a plan to hire extraordinary people for important positions such as city administrator and economic development director. To search the nation to find and pay talented people more than anyone ever got at City Hall — this was the well-laid scheme.
T o pay for these higher salaries, Dyster planned to use money from a “charity” funded by anonymous donors to pay the difference between what taxpayers could afford and what Dyster wanted to pay —between $30,000 — and $50,000 more — bringing salaries above $100,000 for the first time in the city's history.

Graph by Frank Parlato Jr. showing the salaries being skewed in City Hall by Dyster


The beauty of the plan, according to Dyster, was that these new, elite City Hall employees would not cost taxpayers any more than what the “ordinary” people already employed at City Hall were being paid. The old employees would continue, of course, at lower wages, but would be led by outstanding men and women from around the nation — at higher wages, paid in part by secret donors.
Dyster insisted that anonymity was necessary so that donors would not have any influence on the new, elite employees who, thanks to them, received higher salaries.

Dyster , Owens and Kay


Naturally, it begged questions: Are these donors city residents? Do they live outside the city? What precisely could their motivation be? The most enduring question was: Were the donors’ identities secret to Dyster — or just everyone else?
Few people believed Dyster when he answered, “I don’t know who established the fund. I have no direct knowledge of that, nor am I trying to find that out.”
The operative words perhaps were “direct knowledge.” Did Dyster know something indirectly?
Somewhere, the idea came to someone to partially fund city government with private donations. Was it Dyster’s idea? If so, he must have discussed the concept with someone in order for this secret fund to get started. Who was that person? Where did they find donors to commit $250,000 per year for four years, a million dollars overall?
If it was not Dyster’s idea, did secret donors approach Dyster? If someone came to Dyster, then Dyster must have at some meeting assented to the plan. Who was at that meeting?
The donors are, apparently, secret to at least four members of the City Council — which voted 4-1 to end all secretly funded salaries next year. Strangely, however, they made no effort to reduce the new, higher salaries, resulting in a much more expensive City Hall for taxpayers.
While the Council ended the secret funding, there is little doubt they were influenced to veer away from the secrecy and controversy surrounding the fund mainly because of doses of sunshine the Niagara Falls Reporter flashed upon the topic.
From the start, the Reporter asked questions no one else would ask. And Dyster wouldn’t answer — directly.
But Reporter Editor in Chief Mike Hudson got answers. He uncovered that the Buffalo Niagara Partnership — a onesided partnership that favors Buffalo over Niagara — appeared to be behind some of the secret funding. That was troubling. Why would pro-Buffalo people care to pay for salaries in Niagara Falls?
Next, the paper revealed that two of the Partnership’s prime Niagara Falls luminaries — James and Christopher Glynn, owners of the Maid of the Mist Steamboat Corp. and purchasers of the downtown Comfort Inn — may have been behind much of the secret money.
Next, Hudson revealed that Chris Glynn sat in on the hiring process of key mayoral appointees who were paid by the secret fund. This provided the first solid evidence of what might be indisputably unethical behavior.
After all, when one of the main developers in town — and coincidentally one of Dyster’s largest campaign contributors — sits in on the hiring of top positions in City Hall — people who act as liaisons for developers and therefore will work closely with Glynn — this in itself is suspect. When you add that a portion of the pay of these top officials is being paid by anonymous donors — who might be the same people doing the interviews — the charitable scent of the secret fund disappears and in its place comes the stench of a City Hall up for sale and sold to Glynn and maybe others with business before the city.
Both Dyster and Glynn declined to confirm or deny their roles. Absent explanation, it is not unreasonable to speculate that Dyster’s campaign contributor James Glynn might have contributed to the secret fund and that Dyster knew directly about it. In the wake of the Reporter’s articles, their silence seemed all but an admission.
And if Dyster knew that Glynn was a secret contributor, did Donna Owens of Atlanta, hired by Glynn and Dyster as city administrator, also know? Did Peter Kay, of Ohio and Pennsylvania, hired by Dyster and Glynn as economic development director, also know?
Would the presence of Glynn in the hiring process lead them to wonder if Glynn was one of the secret donors, perhaps the only one? Would Owens or Kay be inclined to do more for Glynn than other developers because Glynn might be paying part of their salaries?
Candor would have quelled this mystery. But there was only silence.
More significant than the death of the secret fund, however, is its legacy: the skewing upward of pay at City Hall.
Before the secret fund, department heads were paid between $57,000 and $68,000. Now the city administrator gets $110,000 — with benefits, $148,000. It used to be $60,000. The economic development director, a brand new position, gets $100,000 — with benefits, add $133,000 to the city budget.
In addition, the mayor and Council approved hiring Buffalo attorney Craig H. Johnson as the city’s corporation counsel, paying him $93,000 — $23,875 more than the last counsel.
Plans are in the works to lure a city engineer, possibly from Los Angeles, for $90,000. It was formerly $68,000.
On top of that, City Controller Maria Brown demanded and got an $8,000 pay raise, so her salary, which used to be higher than the city administrator’s, got closer to it.
And Assistant Corporation Counsel, To m O’Donnell, passed over for the top legal job, possibly, only because he hails from Niagara Falls, got a raise to $68,000, which was the salary of his former boss. His new boss will cost taxpayers, with benefits, almost double O’Donnell’s pay.
All of this is demoralizing to longstanding City Hall workers — passed over by people who come from Atlanta, Toledo, Buffalo, maybe Los Angeles, and who are paid much more than them. It sounds peculiar. The mayor believes Owens, a woman who never lived in Niagara Falls, is best to manage the city. She was a mid-level bureaucrat in Atlanta — in the garbage collection department — on the verge of being laid off as that city fired 441 employees in its bloated municipal government. But, here, she is elevated to a $110,000 top management position in a city where the average income is $22,000. Odd that Dyster thinks no one here is bright enough to manage our city. But it will take years before Owens understands the subtleties of Niagara Falls and its people. She seems uninterested, too. In her first 15 weeks in office, she vacationed five weeks, and sources at City Hall say she only works a four-day week when in town
— occasionally, only, breezing in on Fridays in her two-seater Mercedes.
Her proponents argue that — being the brightest and best, next to the mayor — Owens does not need to work as much as average Niagara Falls residents. But she requires nice offices. Dyster recently asked Councilman Sam Fruscione to lead the ever-generous-with-taxpayer-money Council to approve $10,000 to remodel Owens’ offices. Dyster had already spent $50,000 of taxpayer money remodeling his own mayoral offices.
But Dyster enjoys being lavish. In fact, he got state officials to transfer Kevin E. Cottrell, a state parks grants specialist, to City Hall to develop an Underground Railroad museum. State parks officials offered to give the city the entire cost of Cottrell’s current salary and benefits. But Dyster negotiated Cottrell’s salary to go up from $47,500 to $75,000, and got the generous City Council to agree to contribute $29,900 to cover the increase, so that Cottrell could make a Dyster-sized paycheck.
Cottrell’s $75,000 salary is higher than almost all department heads in City Hall
— and with benefits will cost $104,905. In the end, the secret fund will likely
haunt Dyster. Here’s why: If the secret donors were genuinely sincere in wanting to help Niagara Falls, one suspects that one of them would have stepped forward and said, “We are honest, altruistic people. We have no business with City Hall.”
The fact that not one donor was willing to voluntarily come forward while the secret fund imploded publicly and painfully speaks volumes.
Was there not one pure, unabashed, unashamed contributor?
If there is one — let him now speak out and defend Mayor Dyster’s honor.
Or if the whole fund devolves around the Glynns and a few others, as it appears, is it connected in any way to the seemingly numerous favors the Glynns have received from Dyster’s City Hall?

Frank Parlato Jr. can be reached at frank@frankreport.com.

 

 

 
 
 
  Copyright © 2008 Frank Parlato Jr.