Community groups seek Water Board chairman's ouster

Community members speak out on the Niagara Falls Water Board during Wednesday’s Niagara Falls City Council meeting. (Rick Pfeiffer/staff)

Representatives of the Niagara Falls Chapter of the NAACP and the Niagara Organizing Alliance for Hope (NOAH) told members of the City Council Wednesday night that they need to remove their representative on the Niagara Falls Water Board and probe allegations of systemic racism at the agency.

Council Chair Kenny Tompkins said council members will engage in private discussions on the demands of the community activists.

“We heard their comments. We have a say on only one member of the board,” Tompkins said. “We are going to talk amongst ourselves and reach out to the executive director of the water board to discuss this.”

The council’s representative, Patrick Brown, was harshly criticized by Falls NAACP Chapter President Shirley Hamilton for what she 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.

Brown was the target of even more highly charged claims by fellow Water Board Member Renae Kimble when, at its Jan. 11 meeting, the board voted 3-2 not to renew Walker’s employment contract. In addition to Brown, Board Members Nick Forester and Colleen Larkin also approved a resolution that effectively fired Walker.

“People have told me that it was the purpose of a certain new board member to ‘get’ Mrs. Walker and there was nothing Renae Kimble can do about it,” Kimble said during the meeting.

Kimble also said that members of the Falls City Council had been contacted about what she described as “racist comments” on Brown’s Facebook page and made reference to an apparently inappropriate meme on the page that featured “Aunt Jemima.”

“For (the council) to know this and not do anything,” Kimble said, “shame on them.”

The day after the water board meeting, the Facebook pages for Brown and Larkin appeared to have been taken down. 

Hamilton quoted comments from Tompkins, to a Gazette reporter, in which the council chair said, “We do not see Mr. Brown as a racist.”

“Mr Brown’s conduct toward Mrs. Walker clearly says otherwise,” Hamilton said. “The City Council has the responsibility to to stand up for all of our residents’ rights.”

She called on Brown to publicly apologize to Walker and demanded that the council “suspend” Brown from his water board post.

The council appointed Brown to serve as their representative on the water board in January 2020. Council Member William Kennedy vehemently opposed the appointment.

“It’s unfortunate that this council had to endure push back (over Brown), but I warned my colleagues last year that it wasn’t a good appointment,” Kennedy after Wednesday night’s meeting. “Now they’re starting to see this is the tip of what I was warning about.”

Resident Jeffrey Elder, who also criticized Brown, looked at the council members, all of whom are white, and suggested there needed to be change.

“As I look upon this (council), I do not see diversity,” Elder said. “Nor do I see diversity at the Niagara Falls Water Board. The residents of Niagara Falls deserve better.”

With members of NOAH standing in the council chambers spectator gallery, the organization’s executive director, Leslie Nickerson, called for Brown to be replaced. She noted that the six of the water board’s senior staff had their personal services contracts renewed, including the board’s Confidential Secretary Erica Schroeder.

Nickerson pointed out that Schroeder is Forester’s niece and the five executives whose contracts were renewed “are white.” 

“The only person not renewed, was Kendra Walker,” Nickerson said. 

Three of the City Council’s members will face re-election this year and NOAH’s president, Rev. Jessie Scott, was blunt in telling those members they needed to take action.

“There are a lot of people upset with how (Walker) was being treated,” Scott said. “We have a vote. And we are going to vote out some of those who don’t listen.” 

As the council incumbents listened, Scott said he was ready to take matters into his own hands.

“I’m stirred up,” the pastor said, his voice rising with indignation. “Don’t come and ask for our vote when nothing is being done. Don’t be in denial. What are you gonna do? If you can’t do your job, I’ll run and take your job. If I ran right now, I would win. Niagara Falls has enough votes to vote you out.”

Brown did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment on the move to oust him.

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