By Justin Sondel
Niagara Gazette — A pair of city council members accused Mayor Paul Dyster of peddling influence to Buffalo philanthropic groups during the committee of the whole portion of Monday's city council meeting.
Chairman Glenn Choolokian and Councilman Sam Fruscione both accused Dyster of allowing his administration to be manipulated by Buffalo philanthropic organizations like the John R. Oishei Foundation and the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo in exchange for grants. The accusations came while the council members were questioning the mayor on an agenda item that needed to pass in order for the city to accept a grant from the foundation. The city applied for the $4,000 award to pay the city's membership fees to the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative — a bi-national coalition of mayors and other city officials dedicated to the protection and restoration of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River water system.
"I'm very uncomfortable with this," Choolokian said. "Is it time to get the FBI in city hall? I don't understand this."
Choolokian said he was alarmed with the amount of involvement that Buffalo philanthropic groups have shown in Niagara Falls during Dyster's administration.
"I've been in the system for 27 years and I never seen Buffalo get involved in Niagara Falls like it has since you became mayor," Choolokian said.
Fruscione said that he did not understand how being part of the a group that is dedicated to saving the Great Lakes would benefit the residents of Niagara Falls.
"They're picking up $4,000 so you can join a club," Fruscione said. "What about the taxpayers and residents? It's not benefitting them at all. First of all we're on a river, we're not on the Great Lakes. We're not a St. Lawrence city"
As a member city Dyster and members of his administration participate in conference calls throughout the year and an annual meeting where issues facing cities on the massive water system - invasive species, water levels, increasingly volatile weather - are discussed.
Choolokian, Fruscione and Councilman Robert Anderson Jr. voted against the resolution, turning away the awarded grant money.
Councilman Charles Walker and Councilwoman Kristen Grandinetti supported the measure.
Walker said he does not understand how the other council members can justify turning down a grant when the city is in a tough financial situation with the delay in casino funds.
"It's not wise to turn away funds when you are in a good financial situation," he said.
Walker said he views the foundation's interest in helping the city as a sign that Niagara Falls is worthy of an investment.
"I think we should look at that as more of a compliment, that our input is important to this process," he said.
Dyster sought the grant after funding for the membership dues was cut from his proposed budget during the amendment process.
"I knew that there was a chance that the Community Foundation would pay my dues," Dyster said.
Dyster said the reason the city seeks the help of Buffalo philanthropic groups is because most of the groups in Western New York are located in Buffalo.
"I think when times are tough we should be seeking help where we can get it," the mayor said.
Dyster said that he is not sure where the allegations that these groups are trying to buy influence with grants are coming from, but said that there is no truth to the assertions.
"There are no strings attached to the grant other than we were asked to do some reporting, to file a report," he said.
Dyster said the decision to turn down the grant was "foolish".
"Every meeting we talk about how we are short funds and then when a foundation offers to help us out we turn down the grant," Dyster said. "I don't know what the message is that we are trying to send here. I think the message is that we're nuts."
In other council news;
• The council passed a measure to move the time of the council meeting committee of the whole sessions from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m with a 3-2 vote. The legislative session, which had been held at 7 p.m., will now be held after a 15 minute recess at the end of the 5 p.m. meeting. The measure passed even after a number of citizens complained that the time change will limit the public's ability to attend the meetings. Choolokian, Fruscione and Anderson voted to pass the resolution and to deny a motion from Walker to amend the resolution to allow for a public hearing on the time change. Walker and Grandinetti both voted no to the resolution and yes to the amendment.
• The council passed a resolution that will add all "unimproved" streets to the city's list of streets to be paved during the 2013 paving season.
• The council voted to accept a New York Main Street grant from the state to perform planting on the 1500 to 1700 blocks of Main Street. The city will be responsible for the subsequent upkeep of the plants.