A majority of the members of the Niagara Falls City Council moved Wednesday night to appoint a new representative to the city's Water Board.
But the new board member is already sparking as much controversy as the council's previous appointee.
On a 4-1 vote, with Council Member William Kennedy opposed, council members tapped Michael Asklar to serve as their representative on the Niagara Falls Water Board. Asklar fills the vacancy created by the resignation of Water Board chair, and council representative, Patrick Brown.
Asklar's nomination was advanced in a resolution sponsored by Council Chairman Kenny Tompkins and Members Chris Voccio and Andrew Touma.
His term on the board will run to Dec. 31, 2022, the unexpired portion of Brown's term.
Brown resigned suddenly on Jan. 26, less than a week after local civil rights groups and community activists appeared before the city council to demand that he be removed from the board for what they called “blatant discriminatory actions” toward Water Board Director of Financial Services Kendra Walker. Walker is one of only four African-American employees at the water board.
Members of the council were also contacted about what where described as “racist comments” on Brown’s Facebook page, including an apparently inappropriate meme on the page that featured “Aunt Jemima.”
The Gazette was not able to independently confirm those claims because the day after they were made, Brown's Facebook page appeared to have been taken down.
In the wake of Brown's departure, community members asked the city council to look for and consider minority candidates to replace Brown. After posting a request for resumes from potential candidates, Tompkins and Touma said the council received "five or six altogether."
"It was not a lot of applications," Tompkins said. "But some good ones.
Touma said he believed there had been "two minority candidates" who asked to be considered for the board post.
Asklar is not a minority, and although the resolution nominating him lists a home address in the Falls, sources tell the Gazette that he resides in the town of Wheatfield. Tompkins and Touma confirmed that Asklar is not a city resident, but pointed out that the water board's by-laws permit up to two of the five members to live outside of the city's geographic boundaries.
The four current members of the board are all Falls residents.
Tompkins said none of the council members knew Asklar before he submitted his resume.
"Nobody knew him. But I think this guy (had) a stellar application," the council chair said. "I love the guy. He's independent. He told us he 'can look at (the Water Board) from outside the box.' "
In response to an emailed request for why he was supporting Asklar's appointment, Voccio would only say, "Mr. Asklar is very qualified, is highly recommended and meets the requirements for the position."
Tompkins and Touma said Asklar is employed as an engineer at the New York Power Authority (NYPA). Both denied that he has any political affiliations or connections and that he is not linked with current water board member and former Niagara County Democratic Party Chairman Nick Forester.
"He's got a special skill set with regard to his engineering background, I think he'd be a good fit," Touma said. "He's well regarded at the power authority."
Asklar's nomination sparked a heated rebuke of his fellow council members by Kennedy.
"I'm a little disappointed that my colleagues put me in this position again," Kennedy said at the lawmakers' Wednesday night meeting. "You guys have heard about and read about the racial issues (at NYPA). This is part of the reason why Niagara Falls is the way it is right now."
Council Member John Spanbauer pushed back on the discrimination claims, saying he spoke to a NYPA employee who works with Asklar and "is a black man" and that the individual denied the claims.
"He said he was as far away from being a racist as possible," Spanbauer said.
During the debate, Tompkins said, "He has no charges (of discrimination) against him."
Kennedy said Asklar's appointment should also raise red flags because the water board has multiple contractual relationships with the power authority. And the council member charged that Asklar does have a close relationship with Forester.
"Nick has pushed him for the board in the past. He's a Forester guy," Kennedy said. "It's the good old boys club again."
In addition to to his claim that Asklar's employment at NYPA creates a conflict of interest, Kennedy also questioned how open and transparent the council recruitment process had been.
"I thought this was going to be an open process?" Kennedy said. "It started that way and then, I didn't know anything about (Asklar) until he was put on (the council) agenda."
He later told his fellow council members, "You guys really didn't care what I thought."
Shirley Hamilton, president of the Falls Chapter of the NAACP, also expressed disappointment.
"I'm very disappointed that they chose not to represent the whole community of Niagara Falls," she said.