Fredonia’s dysfunction spans a decade

OBSERVER Photo The only consistent face at village meetings over the last 10 years has been Richard St. George, its administrator.

Ten minutes. That is the amount of time former Fredonia Mayor Frank Pagano took Monday night at the Village Board meeting to lash out at the part-time elected officials. He directed his comments at Mayor Athanasia Landis, Trustees Michael Barris, Roger Britz Jr., Douglas Essek, James Lynden and Kara Christina.

“The rancor that occurred at the last board meeting was embarrassing,” he said of the contentious June 11 meeting. “It was embarrassing for you. It was embarrassing for this village.”

It was a plea that came from other community members, he said, that included an admonishment. Simply stated: Get your act together.

But this group of trustees faces much greater challenges than those who were overseeing the village 10 years ago.

Then, there was just as much dissension — with most of it being directed at former Mayor Michael Sullivan.

Sullivan defeated Pagano in the March 2007, but the trustees were not keen on his agenda that included more sharing of services between municipalities. So they stonewalled him consistently. Pagano, who had served as village leader for the 12 previous years, never said anything publicly at that time. But board members in power then helped plant the seeds of Fredonia’s dysfunction today.

How so?:

¯ It distanced the village from regional talks while county leaders and neighboring municipalities moved forward with them.

¯ It refused to talk about the north county water district, which has led to skyrocketing water rates over the last 10 years.

¯ It failed to take the threat of Carriage House leaving seriously in 2011. Instead of treading with caution, trustees plowed forward with higher water and sewer rates to its largest user while also upping taxes. It then absurdly challenged the company on its property assessment. ConAgra officially closed the plant in 2015.

¯ It added employees to the Fire Department so revenues that would come from the Emergency Medical Services initiative would ultimately be offset by more in expenses, leading to a deficit for the program.

So often with the city of Dunkirk, this newspaper has asked the question in recent years about its vision. We know today the waterfront and the Athenex project on Route 5 will drive its future.

What are Fredonia’s plans? Other than increasing costs for its taxpayers, there is not one.

Concerns about the lack of teamwork and bad decisions by village leaders were discussed by Pagano in an interview three years ago for this column. “I’ve talked to several people who I thought would make excellent mayors and trustees and they said they would consider it,” he said in 2015. “Now, they don’t want any part in it. That leaves a big void of potential good candidates to run for office.”

Pagano also made plenty of sense during his diatribe earlier this week — with one exception. While criticizing the elected part-timers, he let the hired full-timer off the hook. More than once, he praised village administrator Richard St. George for his efforts in taking on the day-to-day operations.

That does not mean St. George is leading or managing.

There is one consistent face in the chaos at village hall meetings since Pagano left office. It is St. George. He is well compensated at $120,000 annually, but also is far too quiet. That is the real tragedy of the village.

St. George knows the finances and the inner workings better than anyone in the building. But when it comes to controversial or tough decisions, he sits back and lets the inexperienced or ax-grinding trustees make the call.

That’s been the greatest disservice for village property owners.

Again, consider the EMS transport issue by the Fire Department. St. George could have been more vocal then about weighing the costs and revenues. Instead, he treated his job as that of an employee and not a supervisor. He was silent.

How about this year’s budget that Pagano references that takes $600,000 out of reserves to balance the current fiscal plan? St. George, if he did protest, did not do so enough publicly.

Pagano, who is a loyal Democrat, also needs to be more critical of his party. Currently, Democrats hold three seats — never any less over the last decade — on the Village Board. They, ultimately, have held the votes and led Fredonia down this destructive path.

This group of leaders? All have served less than three years. Still fairly new, they are the ones who have inherited this mess.

Yes, it is “embarrassing.”

John D’Agostino is the OBSERVER publisher. Send comments to jdagostino@observertoday.com or call 366-3000, ext. 401.

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