BY TONY FARINA
“Could only happen in Niagara Falls!”
That’s what people were saying this week after Councilman Charles Walker – who is still dealing with four misdemeanor charges brought by the state attorney general for allegedly failing to file campaign finance reports – was elected to either his third or fourth two-year term as chairman of the City Council.
Walker says he’s not sure how many times he’s been elected chairman, but it is probably fair to say this is the first time he’s been handed the gavel while facing misdemeanor criminal charges, which will likely be settled shortly in some kind of deal negotiated by his attorney, Robert Restaino.
But Walker, who would be up for re-election this year along with Kristen Grandinetti and Andrew Touma – the lawmaker he’s replacing as chairman–has indicated he might not be up for another term no matter a favorable plea deal, and Touma, who is entering the fourth year of his term, also is hinting he may not seek re-election.
Touma was the highest vote-getter when he won election in November of 2013, replacing Sam Fruscione, and the independent-minded educator has been a major figure in building consensus in dealing with the city’s financial challenges in his first stab at public office.
Touma, the dean of students at LaSalle Preparatory School, says he’s undecided at this point about whether he’ll seek a second four-year term.
“I’m going to take a couple of months and contemplate and see if I want to continue,” Touma said during an interview on Wednesday, adding that at the present time he’s not leaning one way or the other because he doesn’t want that process to interfere with his decision making while he is serving on the council.
“I want to focus on moving the city forward,” says Touma, “to be the best public servant I can be. No matter what, it has been an honor to serve.” Touma is expected to decide his future within the next two months because he’ll need to get ready to campaign if he elects to continue in the political world.
Touma deserves a great deal of credit for his work during recent budget negotiations as council chairman. Lawmakers cut $558,000 from Mayor Paul Dyster’s $91 million spending plan, cutting the tax rate for homeowners by 41 cents per $1,000 of assessed value and reducing the proposed tax increase for non-homestead property from $1.90 per $1,000 to $1.25 per thousand.
Touma said at the time that lawmakers combed through the mayor’s budget proposal to find ways to cut taxes and preserve services. It was a difficult task but through hard work and compromise, a deal was reached that Touma called “a win for the taxpayers all around.”
If Touma does decide he’s had enough, the city will lose a smart and hard-working public servant who has not been a rubber stamp for the administration as some had predicted. Instead, he has clashed from time to time with Mayor Dyster and he should be given a great deal of credit for negotiating a budget deal that seems to have won grudging approval all around.
Unlike Dyster, Touma is available to answer questions, returns phone calls, and understands that part of the role of government is to be accountable to the people who pay the salaries. If he does decide to return to private life, he would indeed be missed by a city where enlightened leadership is indeed a rare commodity.
Here’s one reporter who hopes that Andy Touma decides to stick around a while longer, as his departure would be a big loss to a struggling city.