End ‘chaos,’ village must move ahead

Commentary: Fredonia mayor responds to recent ‘commotion’

Mayor Athanasia Landis, left, notes administrator Richard St. George was “never asked to leave.”

Please consider this my only answer to the whole commotion and upheaval that came out of parts of the Village Hall in the last few weeks.

During my campaign I put forward a vision for the village that included a safe, walkable community, open spaces, good schools and an active small business district. In other words, a University town with all the advantages that come from that, as well as from the rich local history and unique geography. The people of the village liked that vision and trusted me with their votes.

I knew there were problems and challenges as well. Four hundred and fifty local people newly unemployed. Broken streets and sidewalks. Crumbling infrastructure. I knew, having spoken to many of the employees and all the department heads, about understaffed and sometimes poorly run Village Departments.

Shortly after taking office, I met with County Executive Vince Horrigan, Dunkirk Mayor Wilfred Rosas and SUNY Fredonia President Dr. Virginia Horvath. Before long, the concept of “Central Connection” was born. As part of that cooperation we submitted our first CFA, and in December 2016 we were awarded $413,000 to upgrade our Barker Common, as the centerpiece of the downtown business district.

During the same year, I became painfully aware of the size of the problems at the Wastewater Treatment Plant, the Water Filtration Plant, the reservoir and the dam. Even more disturbing, I was informed that a number of our residents had for years — at least 11 at the time — colored water in their houses.

Almost as soon as I discovered these problems, I started talking to state representatives and the governor’s office in particular, seeking help and support. As a result, we were advised to apply for a specific grant for our wastewater plant. I asked Wendel Co. to handle that and simultaneously suggested to administrator Richard St. George to get in touch with O’Brien and Gere, who were familiar with our drinking water system, so they could do the same for the water plant. Those actions led to $1.35 million for the wastewater plant and $931,000 for the water plant.

Trying to mitigate the colored water problem, I had requested a study in March 2016 (approximately). The study finally started in May 2017 (I never got an answer from the administrator as for the delay) and was completed in September of the same year. Following the exposure of the problem I called Sen. Catharine Young and Horrigan asking once again for assistance. This time we were able to secure a one-year interest free emergency loan in the amount of $1.37 million (total cost of $1.6 million) to fix that community problem.

We have also applied and been awarded $20,000 for technical assistance regarding updating building facades on Main Street and just last week we applied as lead agency for a Waste Water sludge consolidation feasibility study in the amount of almost $24,000.

My job description, as I see it, is to find solutions to long standing problems and a path forward. So after a month of public outcry regarding the closing of the Eagle Street yard waste site, I attempted to treat the problem as I have other challenges facing the village. Following three board meetings which had produced no immediate solutions, I designed a plan to reopen the site on a specific schedule, under monitoring and supervision. After confirming with the village attorney that it was within my power to direct a department head, and after discussion with DPW Supervisor Perry Mitchell, I directed him to reopen the site. I trusted Mitchell to follow this directive, while respecting the union contract and avoiding unnecessary overtime.

And then it started. First, Trustee Douglas Essek responded with an angry, “Under what authority mayor are you acting under?” This was followed a few hours later by an obviously irritated village administrator, who said, “What we have here right now is chaos, with anyone being allowed to direct the workforce, which lends itself to abuse of authority and confusion.”

Chaos? I keep in almost constant communication with all department heads discussing their challenges, trying to come up with solutions to everyday problems as they are presented to me by citizens, deciding each year’s priorities before the budget process and setting future goals. I also introduced monthly Department Head meetings to allow better communication and reinforce the sense that we all serve the same community. While Mr. St. George always took part at those meetings, neither he nor any of the Department Heads ever mentioned a state of “chaos.”

As to that special meeting’s disgraceful exhibition of complete ignorance and total lack of civility, I’d like to unequivocally reiterate that Mr. St. George was never asked to leave or was he ever spoken to in any improper way. He was obviously overwhelmed by his duties, yet refused any help. His temper was well known amongst employees and Department Heads for years. He repeatedly made racist, sexist and degrading remarks at my expense, often in the presence of Sam Drayo. Still, in my last email I asked him to stay and pledged my cooperation. In his last email to the board, he called me a “transplant.” This is the same person who tendered his resignation to the board claiming a hostile work environment. It was hostile indeed; but not for him.

Mr. St. George was not alone in his opinion of my role. I visited Mr. Drayo at his office during the first few weeks following the election. After he congratulated me he said, and I quote “I want you to ease into the position. You really don’t have to do much. You can even lay back and let the trustees do everything.” There was no mention of the administrator or his role in running the village and no reference to the charter. While I didn’t know what to make of that, after all I had just run a campaign promising to try to find solutions for the Village’s problems, I said nothing. I respected the fact that Mr. Drayo was the village attorney for many, many years and as such his knowledge and understanding of all issues was certainly better than mine.

Fast forward two and a half years. The day after that “special meeting” about two weeks ago, Mr. Drayo emailed the trustees and me explaining the charter and the applicability, or not, of the state law. Reading that email puts everything in perspective and explains, up to a point, the current state of affairs. There is no leader in the village under his interpretation of the charter. According to his stated beliefs “a strong council form of government is the best and the collective wisdom of five elected officials is better than one elected person’s decision,” Irrespective to one’s agreement with the statement, I challenge anyone to find it in the charter. Indeed, such a strong declaration, if true, would have been the Preamble. But it’s not; because although it sounds good as a philosophical statement, it has no practical value at all.

It is my opinion that, for many years, under the direction of Mr. Drayo, the village of Fredonia, with few exceptions, has been run only to exist, invisible to the state, continuously kicking the can down the road in need of resources. Forty years ago, Drayo very carefully drafted the resolution to create the administrator’s position, including language that ensured no transfer of power, yet allowed and even encouraged that continuously ever since.

Naming a deputy mayor a few weeks ago, a position strongly suggested by the state and with little power except to declare a state of emergency, became a major ordeal, with Mr. Drayo declaring repeatedly the need for a referendum. Yet, the position of the administrator, a position that is never mentioned in the charter, and one that allowed an appointed, not elected, official to become the most powerful person in village government having control of finances, workforce, department heads and meeting agenda, was created without one.

To be clear, this was never a “fight” between the mayor and board as they have separate functions, clearly outlined in the charter and the village law. If there was an argument, it had to do with the fact that an appointed official had almost total control of the village, without the approval or even the knowledge of the people. Yes, he had to go in front of the board to approve spending, contracts etc., but as he had control of the agenda, did so largely at his own discretion.

So, where should we go from here? To begin with, we are going back to the original charter where the positions of treasurer and clerk are held by two individuals instead of one, so checks and balances are maintained the way it was intended by the founders of this village. If the board decides at some point that the village needs an administrator, the position will be created as the law provides, through a public referendum.

Let me assure you that the future won’t be bleak just because someone chose to leave the village, where he was “born and raised,” unexpectedly, providing no transition time. We are working diligently to find out where we are, how to do what has to be done, what needs immediate attention and what can wait until the next treasurer and clerk are appointed.

I am very thankful for the many encouraging messages I’ve received. I’m even more thankful to everyone who has stepped up and is helping during this transition.

Although not all change is good, there is no progress without change. So I invite the trustees to stand up with me, brush off the recent “chaos” and to treat this as an opportunity to re-organize and make things better for the people who trust us to work in their interest.

Athanasia Landis is mayor of the village of Fredonia.