Wendel not yet a familiar face in county

Publisher's Notebook

OBSERVER Photo by Natasha Matteliano Paul Wendel Jr., “PJ,” has been Chautauqua County executive since Jan. 2.

New Chautauqua County Executive PJ Wendel sat almost anonymously in the third row of seats at the 1891 Fredonia Opera House and Performing Arts Center. He was one of at least 250 in attendance who were anxiously awaiting the news early Tuesday morning of whether Fredonia would be moving to the final five in the Small Business Revolution contest for a $500,000 revitalization.

About 10 minutes after taking that seat, Wendel joined with the crowd as he applauded and cheered when Fredonia was the second community named as moving on to the voting phase of the contest. As the event continued, Wendel was able to finally introduce himself to those who continued to relish the morning and potential opportunity for the municipality.

He received a warm greeting on a day that spirits were high, even though for many in attendance they knew very little about him and his credentials to lead the county. In one of his first north county appearances since taking the leadership position, he was charismatic and enthusiastic.

“Right now, we have a tiny spark and I know it’s going to grow into a great flame,” he said. “What better place to see that great flame than on the shores of Lake Erie? This is a Chautauqua County effort. This isn’t north county, south county. This right now needs to be embraced by everybody.”

Wendel, after only 12 days at the post, was still finding his footing while filling some big shoes. When former executive George Borrello announced last March he would be running for the suddenly open state Senate position vacated by Catharine Young, the big question had nothing to do with Borrello’s ability. The larger, more pressing issue — even to local political insiders — was who was the next person in line to lead the county?

Both Republicans Vince Horrigan and Borrello were unquestionably ready to rise and meet the challenge as previous executives. The former legislators were outspoken, took on tough issues and, in a sense, seemed to bring the county together.

It was through Horrigan’s efforts the north county water district took shape and under Borrello the region paid more attention to work-force development while not just making the call for more jobs. Both also put a priority on the county’s greatest resource — its lakes, especially Chautauqua and Erie.

Positive agendas. Strong messages.

Enter Wendel, who has served as a Chautauqua County legislator since 2012 and was chairman of the legislature for the past two years. He previously chaired the legislature Public Safety Committee. He has also been a member of the Administrative Services and Audit and Control committees.

What’s Wendel’s voice? We’re not quite sure, as it has rarely stood out over the last eight years. Even in his e-mailed “Monday Morning Memo,” his top item speaks to the mundane. “During my first week as county executive, I had the opportunity to sit down with department heads to learn more about their current projects and processes.”

For now, however, Wendel is likely part of an echo chamber that starts in Albany with Borrello and Assemblyman Andrew Goodell and piped into Mayville’s chambers. Frankly speaking, he’s following the party line.

Besides, most of what comes out of the monthly Chautauqua County Legislature meeting is a sense of contentment that is dominated by Republican rule. Budget spending increases are rarely discussed and the sales-tax hike in 2016 and rise in property taxes this year brought little debate. Legislators, for the most part, are rubber-stampers and rarely speak any opposition.

Part of Wendel’s plea on Tuesday morning in Fredonia made sense. It was about voting for the village in the Small Business Revolution contest, which concludes Tuesday. “Vote early, vote often,” he joked as a politician.

But his current position did not come from any electoral backing by county residents. Wendel, who was unchallenged for the District 10 legislator seat in November’s election, tallied a total 1,617 votes. Later, he received the Republican nomination for executive and then received another 18 “ayes” from the Legislature to ease into the position on Jan. 2.

Democrats, though no party legislator pushed back, quickly vowed to run a candidate for the top post this November though at the moment it appears the party is facing an internal dispute. That could be one more open door for Wendel that could work to his advantage.

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