By Joyce Miles
Niagara Gazette — LOCKPORT — In two surprise moves Tuesday, Democratic county lawmakers appointed a new election commissioner and Republicans threw their support behind a local movement to get welfare rent subsidies paid directly to Niagara County landlords.
At the Board of Elections, veteran Democratic election commissioner Nancy Smith and her deputy, Lora Allen, are trading places after Democratic legislators approved Allen's appointment to the top spot.
Allen was recommended to the commissioner's post by a majority vote of the Niagara County Democratic committee, which met Monday night, according to legislator Owen Steed, D-Niagara Falls.
Allen, also of Niagara Falls, had been Smith's deputy since 2002. She is the first African American resident to hold a commissioner's post from either major political party.
Smith is moving into the deputy's spot until April, when she plans to retire, according to Falls legislator Dennis Virtuoso, minority caucus leader.
Smith had been a commissioner on holdover status since her last two-year appointment expired in December. The Democrats' late November motion to reappoint her was tabled by Republican legislators, who made an issue over Smith's firing of a part-time board clerk, former North Tonawanda mayor Lawrence Soos. Deputy Majority Caucus Leader Paul Wojtaszek, R-North Tonawanda, demanded a legislative inquiry into the firing after Soos was denied unemployment benefits and threatened to sue the county.
When the inquiry was done, Wojtaszek denounced Smith as a liar for allegedly telling legislators that Soos had not been fired for political reasons when in fact he was — Soos had challenged Nick Forster's nomination as chairman of the county Democratic committee — and Smith's nomination never came to a vote of the full legislature. Not that it mattered, since according to state election law, county legislatures pretty much rubber-stamp the major political parties' picks for county election commissioners. Once commissioners are nominated by their parties, the full legislature has 30 days to act on the nomination, and if it does not act, legislators from the affected party can make an appointment unilaterally.
In December, Virtuoso pledged his caucus would appoint Smith —but after the new year it made no move to that effect.
Asked why not Tuesday, Virtuoso said Forster, the party chairman, had asked him to "hold off until he talked to (Smith) about a few things."
Allen only found out she was recommended for the election commissioner's post Monday night, after the party committee vote. She said she did not seek the nomination and accepted it only after talking with Smith, who "didn't discourage me."
Smith could not be reached late Tuesday to comment on her status with the Board of Elections.