It’s been almost four decades, 38 years to be exact, since the last time the majority of the members of the Falls City Council were Republicans.
AT&T, Ma Bell or the “phone company” as people called it, was being broken up into a bunch of Baby Bells. A Polish pope presided over the Catholic Church. And the first computer virus, the Elk Cloner, written by a 15-year-old, was infecting Apple II computers via floppy disk.
Now, on Jan. 1, Republicans will return to the majority on the Cataract City council but what, exactly will that mean for residents? It will probably depend on the shifting alliances among the five council members, especially since one of the members of the GOP majority isn’t fond of “playing politics.”
“I do politics to help people,” said Kenny Tompkins, the first of the GOP trio of members to join the council in 2016. “I’m not going to vote with one side or the other side. If it’s a good idea and it comes from (Republican) Chris (Voccio) or (Republican) John (Spanbauer), I’ll support it. But if (Democrat) Bill (Kennedy) and (Democrat) Andy (Touma) have a good idea, I’ll vote with them.”
An almost accidental Republican, Tomkins joined the party when he was first eligible to vote, to help his uncle, also a Republican, who was running for the City Council. Only later did he discover that the rest of his family members were registered Democrats.
“At this level of government, I think it’s about the people not the party,” Tompkins said. “I don’t like the label you’re the minority or you’re the majority. I think we’re looking to move the city forward. I try to do what’s best for the people of Niagara Falls. I’ve never voted (because of) a party’s policy.”
If Tomkins is looking to emerge as the swing vote on the council, Voccio, at the mid-point of his first term, believes Republican Party doctrine has put him, and GOP newcomer John Spanbauer into the council majority.
“I’ve been predicting this for over a year,” he said. “I have the electorate tuned-in. I go door-to-door even when I’m not running. There’s a movement afoot. I think (Republican) gains will go even further.”
And Voccio says a Republican majority on the council will lead to sweeping changes.
“I think you’ll see the council focused on fiscal responsibility more than in the past,” he said. “I think you’ll see, early on, efforts that will hopefully be bipartisan, to reduce the size and scope of government immediately.”
Voccio said he will seek to create a budget committee of the council that will be able to work with the incoming administration of Mayor Robert Restaino to further cut the city’s recently approved 2020 budget.
“It’s doable and essential,” Voccio said. “We can’t wait for the budget season and I’m confident the new council and administration agrees.”
The newest council member, who put Republicans in the majority and whose victory in the November general elections was just confirmed last week, is also speaking out about the changes to come.
“There’s gonna be a lot of work here and I’m a political novice,” John Spanbauer said. “But it’s great to be a part of local history.”
However, as historic as the shift to the GOP might be, Spanbauer suggests he may be more of a maverick than some might suspect.
“I’ve been a Republican since I was 18, and I’m 60 now,” Spanbauer said. “But I’ve never voted along party lines. I’m not voting Republican or Democrat. I’m voting as an independent for the benefit of the taxpayers of this city. I will be an independent vote and an independent voice for the taxpayers of Niagara Falls.”
Still Spanbauer, like Voccio, has government spending in his cross-hairs.
“In order for the city to be successful, we need to get our financial house in order,” he said. “And we’re gonna have to address our human resources costs.”
Specifically Spanbauer is looking to address overtime and health care costs in the police, fire and public works departments. Those costs are subject to negotiations with five separate city unions whose contracts still have years to run.
How the council plots its course forward may also depend on who succeeds Touma as the council chairman. Both Tomkins and Voccio are candidates for the post.
“I’ve expressed to my colleagues my interest in that,” Voccio said. “I think I’d make a good chair.”
Tomkins believes his experience and seniority on the council should place him in the chair.
“I’m going to do what’s best for Niagara Falls,” he said. “We’ll see how the vote (for chairman) goes.”
And Spanbauer said it was only after his election that he became aware that he would have a vote on the next council chairman. He said he is “doing his homework” on what the city charter requires of a chairman and will talk with both Tompkins and Voccio.
“At this point, I’m not leaning one way or the other,” he said.