One of them is a semi-retired businessman who is a reluctant politician at best,
Another is a newcomer to politics after a career in music, while a third has been given the nickname “Miss Niagara Falls” by her husband because of her passion for the city.
And the fourth is a plain-spoken populist, who consciously works to project the image that he could be your neighbor.
From these four diverse candidates, Falls voters will select two to serve on the City Council beginning in January.
Incumbent Republican Council Member Kenny Tompkins looks to defend his seat, while fellow Republican John Spanbauer and Democratic candidates Alicia Kenyon and Donta Myles are competing for against Tompkins’ spot and looking to fill the seat of departing Council Member Ezra Scott, who is not seeking re-election.
Kenyon is making her third attempt to win a seat on the council. She came within 200 votes of being elected as a 20-something candidate, then waged a second campaign while she was pregnant with her daughter.
“It was not my most effective campaign,” she said.
Now, the executive director of the Elderwood Health Plan says she’s perfectly positioned to help her hometown.
“Why wouldn’t I (run),” Kenyon said. “I believe I’m the best candidate. I’ve enjoyed the campaign, this is exactly where I want to be and I’m excited for the future of Niagara Falls. This campaign has been well worth it.”
Spanbauer, on the other hand, has been a more reluctant candidate. At a recent candidate debate, sponsored by the Gazette, he described himself as “the semi-retired guy who wants to spend time with his family and friends (and) does not want to be in politics.”
But Spanbauer went on to say he was a “tax-paying citizen who has become frustrated with our city government and wants to be an advocate for the taxpayer.” He said that desire is driving his campaign.
“It’s been a learning experience,” Spanbauer said. “It’s been a tougher experience than I thought it would be. Whether I get elected or not, I’m going to be an advocate for the taxpayer.”
For Myles, his first run for elected office has been fueled by fatherhood.
“I’m a father first,” Myles said. “My kids are my reason for running. I want better for them. I want to make sure my kids’ quality of life can be the best it can be.”
While Tompkins has served as a Republican in his term on the council, he said he takes pride in avoiding partisanship.
“I do not play partisan politics,” Tompkins said. “Any decisions I have made are based on what I feel is the best for the majority of my constituents. Some are very popular and some are not, but I always believe I’m doing what’s best for everyone.”
The candidates share a common view that the most significant challenge facing the city is a structural budget deficit of roughly $10 million that has been filled for years with revenue sharing cash from the Seneca Niagara Resort and Casino.
“There’s a lot I’d like to do,” Kenyon said, “but we have to stabilize our finances, not only by examining inefficiencies, but also raising revenue.”
She has embraced a Tompkins’ proposal for a surcharge of activities in the state park. Kenyon also champions the use of shared-services agreements as a cost-cutting measure.
Spanbauer said the campaign has given him a greater understanding about how the city government operates. His mantra is that “government needs to run like a business.”
“We have got to get our fiscal house in order,” Spanbauer said. “Otherwise, it’s going to be a long road for the city. We have to look at operating the city in a more efficient way.”
The political newcomer believes the council needs to work with the city’s unions to control overtime and health care costs.
Myles said the council that is seated in January will need to “wrap its hands around the 2020 budget”, but that voters are looking for “something different” in addressing the city’s fiscal challenges.
“They’re tired of the same old politics,” Myles said. “They’re tired of politicians telling then what want to hear. They tell me they like the way I speak out on the tough subjects.”
Despite his status as an incumbent, Tompkins touts an independent streak that he says serves him and his constituents well.
“I work well with my colleagues and have built a strong rapport with our state leaders,” Tompkins said. “I do my homework on every issue and try to understand it fully before casting my vote. I am not shy about asking tough questions or speaking my mind at council meetings. If I’m not satisfied, I have no problem tabling an item until we receive adequate responses to make informed decisions.”
While no subject in the city may be tougher than the casino revenue sharing dispute with the Seneca Nation of Indians, all the council candidates said they were limited in addressing it.
“Because of the (gaming) compact, we can’t negotiate with (the Senecas) directly,” Kenyon said. “I’m not opposed to meeting with them. From everything I’m hearing, the Senecas want to work with us, but we haven’t had a strong enough voice at the table.”
Myles said he sees negotiations as the only viable option with the Senecas.
“Trying to fight them is useless,” Myles said. “We have to sit down at the table and in 2023 (when the gaming compact expires) we need to be heavy hitters at the table.”
Spanbauer said he views the stalemate with the Senecas as an issue best left to whoever succeeds Mayor Paul Dyster.
“We have to do better than we have in the past,” he said. “The mayor needs to work with the state’s representatives.
Tompkins, who has been at the center of council debates on how to handle the suspension of revenue sharing funds, also views the issue as one that will fall to a new mayor.
“Oye,” he said in a phone interview when asked about the Senecas. “I think that it’s up to whoever becomes mayor to open a line of communication with them. They need us to survive and we need them to survive.”