Niagara Gazette

March 19, 2013

GOP motion on ex-election chief draws threats from Dems

By Joyce Miles
Niagara Gazette

LOCKPORT —

Top Democrats promised the county legislature's majority caucus payback for its Tuesday passage of a resolution condemning the employment of Nancy Smith as a deputy election commissioner.

The resolution, put up by Republican majority caucus leaders Richard Updegrove and Paul Wojtaszek, puts the legislature on the record opposing "continued employment of (Smith) by the Niagara County Board of Elections, and the consequent qualification for taxpayer-funded lifetime health insurance benefits she will receive."

The resolution was OK'd on an 11-3, straight caucus-line vote, with only Democrats casting the no votes.

Smith, the former Democratic election commissioner, recently traded jobs with her old deputy, Lora Allen, and announced she'll retire from the county's employ on April 15, her 55th birthday.

As a 19-year employee, she'll be able to retire and have the county pay 75 percent of her health insurance tab for the rest of her life, per a county human resources policy that's been in effect since 1998. Retirees with 20 or more years of service get 100 percent county-funded health benefits for life.

Wojtaszek has been objecting to Smith's appointment as a deputy commissioner since it occurred in mid-February. He charges that Smith, whose term of office ended this past December, does not "deserve" retirement benefits, after her politically inspired firing of a board clerk last fall, former North Tonawanda Mayor Lawrence Soos, nearly got the county sued. Further, Wojtaszek charged, Smith "lied" to a legislative subcommittee about the incident.

Allen, who was Smith's deputy for more than 10 years, was appointed to the top elections post in mid-February, on the Niagara County Democratic committee's recommendation. State election law lets the major parties decide who they want as commissioners; the county legislature appoints effectively only rubber-stamps the parties' picks when it appoints commissioners.

Election law also authorizes commissioners to pick their deputies, and Allen, an ordained minister, told the Legislature on Tuesday that Smith was her choice.

Wojtaszek insisted Allen took an order from the the Democratic party to "pad" Smith's retirement. She needs to stay employed until she turns 55 in order to get the lifetime health benefit.

Minority Caucus Leader Dennis Virtuoso, D-Niagara Falls, shouted his objections to the Wojtaszek-Updegrove resolution. The Republicans are lying when they claim Smith isn't entitled to the lifetime health benefit, he charged.

County HR policy enacted in 1998 says appointees who worked for the county 10 or more years are entitled to partly or fully-funded lifetime health coverage if they're at least 55 years old when they retire — or if the "official is not reappointed or is terminated due to a change in control of the legislature by designation of a new majority party."

Virtuoso claims a retired judge to whom he showed the policy concluded that Smith would be eligible for the lifetime benefit even if she retired before her 55th birthday, because she was not reappointed by the legislature.

Called on by several legislators to interpret the policy, County Attorney Claude Joerg said Virtuoso's take was wrong. Smith would not be eligible because her lack of reappointment did not result from a change in party control of the legislature, he said; she'll only be eligible because Allen is keeping her on until she turns 55.

Virtuoso angrily wrote off the GOP leaders' resolution as "bullying (of) a public official, Mrs. Allen, into changing her mind about who she wants as employees." He threatened a resolution or two by Democrats this year going after Republican employees of the Board of Elections, "some" of whom he claimed are not qualified to be there.

County Democratic committee chairman Nick Forster added a threat of his own, promising letters will be sent to every female voter in Wojtaszek's and Updegrove's districts to "remind" those voters how the Republican legislators treated a female county employee who's one month shy of retirement age.

"They'd like to see removal of (Smith's retirement) benefits over 30 days (of employment)," Forster said. "We're going to let the voters know how much (Wojtaszek and Updegrove) support women's rights."