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Reviewing Dyster: The secret hiring fund and its legacy

Niagara Falls Repoerter

January 25, 2011

By Frank Parlato Jr.

Now that Mayor Paul Dyster is seeking re-election, his record seems due for a careful review, to assist our readers in their efforts to decide if this is the man they want to continue to lead the city.

An item to review is the rise and fall of Dyster's secret fund to hire out-of-town employees to work at City Hall.

When he came to office in January 2008, Dyster proposed to hire extraordinary people for important positions such as city administrator, economic development director, city engineer and corporation counsel. He said he would search the nation to find "the brightest and best."

The original plan was that these non-local employees would not cost taxpayers any more than what local employees at City Hall were paid.

To pay a portion of their higher salaries, Dyster planned to use a new charity, "Building a Better Niagara," funded by anonymous donors. The charity would pay the difference between what taxpayers used to pay and what Dyster wanted to pay -- between $30,000 and $50,000 more per job -- bringing City Hall salaries above $100,000 for the first time.

Local employees would continue at lower wages, but would be led by exceptional men and women from around the nation, who would paid in part by donors who would remain anonymous, so they would have no influence on the new elite team. Dyster said he did not know who the secret donors were but had been assured they only wished the best for our city.

Dyster hired Donna Owens -- a mid-level bureaucrat formerly in the garbage collection department in Atlanta -- for city administrator, replacing Bill Bradberry, a local writer, lawyer and leader of the NAACP.

Owens was paid $110,000 -- with benefits, she was paid $160,000 annually. Bradberry had gotten $60,000. Nearly half of Owens' salary was initially paid by secret donors.

Dyster then created a new job -- economic development director -- and selected Peter Kay, of Ohio, to fill it. Kay, a journeyman government bureaucrat, seems to have moved every few years, trying to stay employed.

Dyster overlooked locals like Fran Iusi, now director of business development, and longtime economic development professional Joe Collura. Both know the area, the people and the economic climate better than Kay -- who, after getting the job, only marginally lived here four days a week. Kay got $100,000 -- with benefits, more than $150,000. Collura and Iusi make $63,941 and $55,550 respectively.

On day one of his mayoral term, Dyster fired City Engineer Bob Curtis, who apparently had some angst over how Ciminelli Construction was going to build the new courthouse on Main Street, a project that did not start until Dyster took office.

Curtis said he thought construction prices would escalate if Ciminelli was not watched closely. That comment may have sealed his fate.

Curtis was fired, and nobody watched as Ciminelli submitted change order after change order for the construction of the building. Without a city engineer, no one was qualified to investigate the validity of spending millions more in change orders.

Dyster searched nationally for an engineer for over a year. Critics said he deliberately procrastinated to benefit the Ciminelli team, who had helped him immensely during his election by abandoning his opponent, Lewis "Babe" Rotella, who had helped Ciminelli secure the contract.

Once elected, Dyster could help Ciminelli make a lot more money on the building, if change orders were not scrupulously watched. The Niagara Gazette and the Buffalo News, along with this publication, made it a matter of public record that the change orders were not closely watched. Dyster delegated the task of watching Ciminelli to volunteers without technical knowledge of construction, who quit because they knew they were not qualified.

Dyster then hired Li Ro Engineers of Buffalo to monitor the last phases of construction, at $14,000 per month. Curtis would have been paid $6,000 a month and would have done many more duties as city engineer.

After the courthouse was finished, Dyster got around to hiring a city engineer -- Ali Marzban, an Iranian from Los Angeles. The Reporter discovered Marzban was not a licensed engineer, and he was fired.

The mediocre and shoddy-looking courthouse built under Dyster's watch appears to be a $20 million building, but it cost more than $50 million.

According to Reeds Construction Data, the average cost for the same kind of building in 25 major U.S. cities was from $179 to $299 per square foot. We paid $415 per square foot, a monstrous record-breaker that screams for a forensic audit.

Rounding out the list of hires, Dyster hired Buffalo attorney Craig H. Johnson as corporation counsel, at $93,000 -- $23,875 more than the previous counsel -- passing over local attorneys, including those who had long served in the corporation counsel's office.

Dyster passed over local firemen -- including retired Niagara Falls firefighter Nick Vilardo, who served 30 years as captain, battalion chief, and chief of fire prevention -- to hire an unemployed 63-year-old Floridian, Roger Melchior. Vilardo was willing to take the job for $30,000, while Melchior receives $79,000.

More important than why Dyster chose a motley group of outsiders is the mystery behind how these new hires were paid by a charity comprised of secret donors.

Few believed Dyster when he said, "I don't know who established the fund. I have no direct knowledge of that, nor am I trying to find that out."

Revelations published in the Reporter helped seal the fund's fate. City Council voted in late 2008 to end all secretly funded salaries in 2009.

James and Christopher Glynn, owners of the Maid of the Mist Steamboat Corp. and the downtown Comfort Inn, and among Dyster's largest campaign contributors, may have been secret donors. The Reporter came into possession of e-mails indicating that Christopher Glynn, in a clear public conflict, sat in on the hiring process of the out-of-towners initially paid by the secret fund.

Glynn is developing property on Old Falls Street, and sat in on the hiring of top people in City Hall like Owens and Kay, people who would later act as liaisons for him as developer. He may have been secretly paying part of their salaries.

The Council rightly ended the "donations," but the weird element -- its legacy -- was that they made no effort to reduce the new, higher salaries for the mayor's out-of-town hires, leaving taxpayers funding a much more expensive City Hall.

If the secret fund was altruistic, and not an influence-peddling scheme, why didn't one of those who contributed or pledged to donate a total of $1 million come forward and clear the air? Once the fund was dead, secrecy was no longer required.

If the motive was altruistic, why not come forward and be honored by us? Is there not one unashamed contributor?

The legacy of the secret fund is a super-expensive City Hall led by a dubious assortment of out-of-town employees. Dyster prefers the "best and brightest" to be magical outsiders -- except himself, the one local bright enough to lead us.

Dyster comes across throughout this escapade as a bumbler with an arrogant disdain for local people. But was there a deeper, darker motive involved?

 

 

 
 
 
  Copyright © 2008 Frank Parlato Jr.