Polon­carz looms large in Amherst races

He’s not run­ning there, but his col­leagues are

The Buffalo News - - CITY&REGION - By Stephen T. Wat­son

As Democrats and Repub­li­cans pre­pare to se­lect their con­tenders for elec­tive of­fice in Amherst, Erie County Ex­ec­u­tive Mark Polon­carz is closer to get­ting another ally in town govern­ment.

The par­ties will meet this week to en­dorse can­di­dates for two Town Board seats, town clerk, high­way su­per­in­ten­dent and town jus­tice for Novem­ber’s elec­tion.

Look for a high-pro­file re­match of the 2018 con­test for town clerk, some fa­mil­iar names in the Town Board con­tests and pos­si­ble crossendorse­ments that would elim­i­nate any sus­pense in the races for high­way su­per­in­ten­dent and town jus­tice.

But the 2019 races in Amherst, Erie County’s largest sub­urb, also high­light the close con­nec­tions be­tween Town Hall and County Hall.

The town su­per­vi­sor’s chief of staff moved into that job from Polon­carz’s staff in Jan­uary 2018. That’s also when Shawn Lavin, a county em­ployee, joined the Town Board.

Now, Michael Szukala, the county’s Med­i­caid in­spec­tor gen­eral, is run­ning for Town Board and is in line to re­ceive the Demo­cratic en­dorse­ment.

Amherst Repub­li­can Chair­man Joseph Heins said the sit­u­a­tion is rife with con­flicts of in­ter­est.

“I ab­so­lutely think that the county ex­ec­u­tive is try­ing to ex­tend his in­flu­ence as much as pos­si­ble,” Heins said.

But Polon­carz de­nied any in­ter­est in med­dling in town af­fairs.

“I cer­tainly sup­port good can­di­dates who run for of­fice,” he said. “It’s not me ex­tend­ing my in­flu­ence.”

The Amherst Town Board went al­lDemo­cratic in 2017, when Brian J. Kulpa won the su­per­vi­sor’s race and Lavin and Jac­qua­line Berger took spots on the board.

Two seats are on the bal­lot this Novem­ber: In­cum­bent Deb­o­rah Bruch Bucki is seek­ing another term and col­league Francina Spoth is run­ning for town clerk.

Bucki, Szukala and Jim Tri­coli, who op­er­ates the Amherst Times web­site, have re­quested the Demo­cratic party’s back­ing, said Amherst Demo­cratic Chair­man Jerome Schad. Alissa Shields, a mem­ber of the town’s Zon­ing Board of Ap­peals, con­sid­ered a run but opted out cit­ing fam­ily con­sid­er­a­tions.

Schad said he thinks highly of Shields but, as­sum­ing the com­mit­tee backs Bucki and Szukala, “I’d be very happy.”

Steven San­ders con­firmed he’s seek­ing the Repub­li­can en­dorse­ment to re­turn to the Town Board. San­ders couldn’t run for re-elec­tion in 2017 be­cause of term lim­its. Heins de­clined to say who else has sought the party’s back­ing.

“I’d like to con­tinue to help the town,” said San­ders, who al­ready is ham­mer­ing on one likely cam­paign theme: the tax in­crease in the 2018 town bud­get ap­proved by the all-Demo­cratic board.

San­ders is a col­league of Szukala’s on the Amherst In­dus­trial De­vel­op­ment Agency board. Szukala has served as the county’s Med­i­caid in­spec­tor gen­eral since 2012. If elected, he would be the third cur­rent or for­mer Polon­carz ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial in a top po­si­tion in Amherst.

Lavin pre­vi­ously worked with Szukala but re­cently shifted to a job in the county’s Per­son­nel Depart­ment.

And Joseph McMa­hon served as a li­ai­son for Polon­carz with com­mu­nity groups and with other county de­part­ments be­fore tak­ing the newly cre­ated po­si­tion of chief of staff. McMa­hon ran Kulpa’s suc­cess­ful 2017 cam­paign for su­per­vi­sor be­fore mov­ing into Town Hall.

“If any­thing, people would say I’m poach­ing” from County Hall, Schad said. “The county ex­ec­u­tive has never once come to me and said, ‘What about this per­son for of­fice?’ ”

Polon­carz said he en­cour­ages his col­leagues and em­ploy­ees to seek of­fice. That group in­cludes Diane Ter­ra­nova, the Lan­caster town clerk, who worked for Polon­carz when he was county comp­trol­ler.

“We want good people serv­ing in govern­ment,” Polon­carz said.

But he said he doesn’t do so out of a de­sire to ex­pand his po­lit­i­cal reach into those com­mu­ni­ties. In fact, he said, when McMa­hon left to join Kulpa’s ad­min­is­tra­tion, “That was a big loss for my of­fice.”

Lavin said he first ran for Town Board, un­suc­cess­fully, in 2009, be­fore Polon­carz was county ex­ec­u­tive.

He said any con­flict, whether tan­gling over a fund­ing for­mula or a county-main­tained road, is han­dled am­i­ca­bly and with­out a question of di­vided loy­al­ties.

If any­thing, Lavin said, the town ben­e­fits be­cause it has a di­rect line to the County Ex­ec­u­tive’s Of­fice.

“The com­mu­ni­ca­tion lines are al­ready open,” Lavin said. And, Polon­carz said, that goes the other way, too.

San­ders, the Repub­li­can who wants to re­turn to the Amherst Town Board, de­clined to question the mo­tives of Szukala or Polon­carz.

“I don’t be­lieve this is the county say­ing, let’s take over con­trol of Amherst govern­ment,” he said.

But Heins, the GOP chair­man, said when the Town Board lacks di­ver­sity of po­lit­i­cal thought, “The whole town will suf­fer.” And, he said, “You can see pretty starkly where con­flicts will arise there.”

Amherst Repub­li­cans will meet to­day to is­sue their en­dorse­ments, with Democrats fol­low­ing on Wed­nes­day. Both par­ties have talked to prospec­tive can­di­dates in re­cent days.

The process of snag­ging an en­dorse­ment and get­ting onto the bal­lot is trun­cated this year be­cause of changes to state elec­tion law.

While Democrats have full con­trol of the Amherst Town Board, Repub­li­cans fill the three other po­si­tions that are up for elec­tion in Novem­ber.

Town clerk is likely to see Spoth, the Demo­cratic Town Board mem­ber and deputy su­per­vi­sor, again face off against Jef­fery Ze­plowitz. The Repub­li­can Ze­plowitz beat Spoth last fall in a spe­cial elec­tion to re­place Town Clerk Mar­jory Jaeger, but only af­ter a tech­ni­cal­ity bumped Spoth from the Demo­cratic bal­lot line.

Town Jus­tice Ge­of­frey K. Klein, a Repub­li­can, has run with GOP and Demo­cratic back­ing in the past, and that’s a pos­si­bil­ity again this year, Schad said.

High­way Su­per­in­ten­dent Pa­trick G. Lucey Jr. also made a pitch for cross­party sup­port at last week’s can­di­dates’ meet­ing with the Amherst Demo­cratic Com­mit­tee, Schad said.

Heins largely de­clined to com­ment on his com­mit­tee’s plan of ac­tion pend­ing to­day’s meet­ing.

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