Former Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster has been on an orchestrated media tour following his departure from office last week — complete with the paid promotion of self-produced YouTube videos. Long profiles, well-shaped in their messaging, have appeared in The Buffalo News and The Niagara Gazette in recent weeks– his preferred publications, for their political leanings — and interviews with all the local television stations attempt to do the same thing: to cast Dyster’s tenure in a more favorable light than voters themselves are willing to shine upon him.
Knowledgable political observers believe Dyster’s efforts are targeted towards two objectives: 1) to revise history on his terms; and, 2) to position himself for a run to the state legislature, necessitating that he boosts deplorable polling numbers, which caused him to decline to seek a fourth term.
The profiles, followed up by editorial board endorsements in both publications, claim that Dyster’s tenure was one of progress and struggle against headwinds that were out of his control. They are flowing and uncritical pieces, not intended to probe or to evaluate or to contextualize the claims of a man long known to aspire to higher office, but instead to revise our City’s history and to mischaracterize our economic struggles.
That type of misinformation is commonplace in the politics of today — but it’s not an inconsequential practice, and requires publications like ours to raise a critical lens.
After three terms in office — a remarkably rare feat in a City that tends to turn quickly on its leaders — Dyster’s path to political redemption is long and twisted. But if he hopes that path runs through the State Senate or State Assembly, he must first acknowledge his missteps and shed his biases.
Even if for no other reason than for the body politic to learn from its collective mistakes.
Step One: stop the politics of favors and grudges
The chief criticism of Niagara Falls’ political culture for generations has been that it is rife with favoritism for those whose friends are in power, while the doors to city hall are proverbially closed to everyone else. It’s a system that’s allowed policy and enforcement decisions to be made with regard to grudges towards those who have been critical of the ruling regime. And it’s a system where rules are broken — or at least severely bent — in order make the machinations of city government easier for political patrons.
Under Dyster, who has been ostensibly touted as less corrupt than most others who have held the office (at least those in Buffalo who are far removed from the interworkings of the City), city administrators would often make strict code enforcement demands of critics, like the in case of bed and breakfast operator Merle Smouse, who was subjected to harassment and threats from code enforcement officers immediately upon acquiring a pair of dilapidated buildings on Third Street.
When Smouse responded to a city-issued RFP to redevelop the Mehta Building on Main Street, the administration’s haphazard evaluation of the RFP responses were manipulated greatly to award the building to an out-of-town firm that then demolished it — despite the RFP demanding that the structure be preserved. That building was under the City’s stewardship for at least two years prior to the RFP and, arguably, suffered from only cosmetic issues. Once turned over to the winner of the RFP, the firm was authorized to demolish the structure, citing a ‘demolition emergency’.
Later, his spin was that the City approved the Mehta Building’s demolition because of the building’s history. It housed a medical practice that was later shut down for loosely prescribing opioids. This, from the self-proclaimed ‘preservationist’ mayor.
In other situations, Dyster officials would not enforce City codes or permitting requirements of the administration’s supporters, like in the case of AirBnb operator Bernice Radle (who operated for more than a year without complying with the City’s high profile new regulation of vacation rentals, and did so without consequence).
In the case of Sean Wilczak, he alleges the City illegally confiscated a property he owned on Niagara Street and awarded it to Radle’s Little Wheel Holdings, LLC, on the premise of a small outstanding tax debt. The Dyster administration was not consistent in applying its foreclosure policies — often allowing some owners to accumulate years upon years of outstanding tax debt, while quickly acting to confiscate properties that were late paying a single year’s tax balance.
The pervasive bias in the administration’s application of all sorts of laws manifested itself in ways that created deep resentment of the city’s political leaders. It crushed the dream of homeownership for Bridget Myles.
Step Two: embrace more conservative fiscal views
At the root of all of Dyster’s political headaches is the fiscal condition of the City. Despite taking office with a $35 million fund balance and a $6 million operating surplus, he left office with a structural operating deficit between $15 million and $20 million — and instituted a new garbage user fee that has deeply riled the City’s homeowners. He even had to threaten the layoffs of nearly 50 civil servants in the event that the city council rejected the tax hike in his last months in office.
After years of salary increases for staff and poorly negotiated labor contracts with a slew of City unions, from the police and firemen to sanitation workers, the City treasury was left bone dry. Add to the spending a police headquarters whose cost overruns doubled the original price of the project, and you have Dyster-nomics.
Dyster readily admits that the City should never have used non-recurring casino windfall monies for operating expenses, however, Dyster would readily endorse the haphazard spending initiatives of the council and did little to curb their appetite, which accrued to his political benefit. The casino compact with the Seneca Nation of Indians even specifies that the City’s share of revenue would be invested in economic development projects around the venue, and feel equally as defrauded as City taxpayers for the misuse of the funds.
“No person with an MBA or executive skill sets would have ever allowed the City to spend more than it could generate on its own merits,” explains one local businessman who asked not to be named. “It’s intuitive to business people who are comfortable with accounting mechanics and understand finance. But to academics who want to pretend that sociology is actually economics, that fundamental seems not to have much credence.”
The businessman, who is a friend of Dyster, argues that academics make decisions based on the peculiar logic of a particular discipline rather than on a capital investment’s impact on cash flows. He admits that he would rather see elected officials in executive positions have MBAs or degrees in operations engineering.
“Community activists and college professors make stronger legislators, but they make weak ineffective executives. I think the reverse is true as well: that MBAs make poor legislators but are stronger executives,” he adds.
The City still lacks the appetite to reduce spending, to streamline services, or to regionalize service delivery — in large part because raising taxes and increasing spending has been so normalized under Dyster. For years he asserted that “there’s no place left to cut,” at the same time he was increasing salaries for his senior staffers, increasing the size of the city workforce, and failed to push for cost-saving measures in City labor contracts.
Step Three: shed biases towards the business community
Dyster’s treatment of many businessmen doomed many worthwhile development projects. He refused to collaborate with some of the city’s most capable and well-financed developers, from the Sheraton Hotel’s owner, Micheal DiCienzo, to the One Niagara Center’s Gordon Reger and Paul Grenga, to Smokin’ Joe Anderson and Niagara Falls Redevelopment.
Dyster’s hostile treatment is the reason why Anderson sold dozens of properties to USA Niagara Development for $24.5 million rather than be further frustrated by City Hall’s constant impediments to developing them, sources reveal. Bold, privately financed projects that would have accelerated the city’s revival were met with a cold shoulder and an unnecessarily suspect tone.
Politics is all about priorities, and implicit in having priorities exists the biases that any individual would bring to a political role. Dyster’s bias has been against the business community — with particular disdain for Niagara Falls Redevelopment and its owner, Howard Milstein. For years, Dyster publicly espoused hostile sentiments towards the Manhattan billionaire.
Being actively hostile towards one of the City’s largest landholders for his entire term in office is a stunning dereliction of duty, his critics argue. A mayor with experience in the business world or a deeper understanding of the analytics around capital mobilization would have understood intuitively the business community’s development challenges in the City.
Seasonal cyclicality in the tourism industry has made it enormously challenging for any business model to succeed — and makes it nearly impossible for development projects of significant capital intensity. The electorate’s aspirations demand big, bold, transformative projects that, despite robust summertime profitability, become losing propositions on the long and cold off-season.
Rather than empathizing with the challenge, his political posturing succumbed to leftist attitudes towards Milstein and community activists who sought to demonize the billionaire. Imagine what progress could have been made if the City government was working collaboratively with such an influential and accomplished businessman.
Step Four: assert independence from party bosses
In some circles, Dyster is credited with “cultivating a relationship with Albany” that has been uncharacteristic of the succession of one-termers that preceded him. Indeed, his unwavering allegiance to Governor Andrew Cuomo has yielded some gains for the City — like minor parkscape improvements to the State Park and access to a lending facility that floated the City’s operating costs in anticipation of casino windfalls.
But the burdens of that relationship have cost the City vastly more than it ever gained from Cuomo’s good graces. It’s been particularly damaging to the City’s relationship with its largest employer and largest investor: the Seneca Gaming Corporation.
Cuomo helped the Buffalo-based Delaware North Companies defraud the Seneca Nation of gaming exclusivity rights that it had purchased from the State in a 2002 gaming compact. After lobbying and receiving mammoth campaign contributions from the influential Jacobs family, Cuomo authorized that firm to operate slot machines at its casinos in Hamburg and Farmington — effectively defrauding the Seneca Nation of hundreds of millions of dollars that violated the Seneca’s exclusivity clause.
As should have been expected, the Seneca Nation began withholding exclusivity payments to the State, which then transferred a quarter-share of that payment to the City. But a succession of Seneca Presidents including Barry Snyder, Rob Porter, Moe John, and Rickey Armstrong each offered to work directly with the City of Niagara Falls to ensure that it received the monies that it had been expecting, while the Nation engages in its ongoing dispute with the Governor, who has been orchestrating an ongoing scheme to extort the Indian Tribe.
Each Seneca President has gone to great lengths to build a cooperative and collaborative relationship with the communities that host its venues. But Cuomo demanded that Dyster not engage with the Senecas, and he dotingly complied.
Observers question whether Dyster has anything planned, other than to mitigate the prevailing analysis of his tenure. That the messaging of his recent media tour has been consistent across platforms, indicates that powerful Democrats who control The News and The Gazette are looking to help him (notice there was not a peep about that long-heralded Niagara Experience Center in any of Dyster’s recent retrospective profiles).
But public introspection of the City’s last twelve years must be fair and critical — because the body politic learns nothing of its own failures and shortcomings with doting adoration. Let us not repeat history by honestly learning from it.