WASHINGTON – President Obama is getting painful messages about the dangers of entrusting the people’s business to hardened insiders who prefer stealth and mangled messages to plain truth, and muscle to transparent process.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is among those who would like to succeed Obama. Cuomo is working from a Capitol moldy with corruption. Yet the stark lessons offered here seem to have escaped the governor so far, at least in dealing with the cascading problems of the Peace Bridge.
There have been 16 years of lawsuits, covert business feuds, intimidation, environmental studies and unreported conflicts reaching into the Clinton White House itself over how or whether the bridge should be expanded or replaced.
With too many people playing Big Foot, the sustained controversy has left developments on the U.S. side stalled, a once beautiful neighborhood endangered and logically – considering the personalities involved – a silly quarrel between Cuomo himself and a constitutional monarchy with its own armed forces called Canada over the status of the bridge manager.
Canada and New York jointly own the bridge. Over time, however, insiders from both sides conspired to mothball the best answer to traffic pileups and truck exhaust pollution that poisons residents: A new span at the International Bridge site bringing trucks only from the Queen Elizabeth Way to an industrial district in Black Rock.
The reason is that the authority, created to serve the interests of the people of New York and Canada, mothers its monopoly on traffic, tolls, its “administrative” payroll of nearly $3 million a year and, more lately, the interests of the duty-free booze stores owned by an opaque, privileged firm called Duty Free Americas.
And to heck with business that’s lost or diverted elsewhere because of traffic, the kids and elderly breathing diesel fumes and the historic 19th century homes on Buffalo’s West Side that were destroyed to make way for – what?
The man Cuomo uses to preside over this mess is Democrat Sam Hoyt, a former assemblyman. He occupies one of two seats on the board reserved for people from the community. However, Hoyt works for the state as regional chairman of Empire State Development and is widely considered to be unhesitatingly loyal, meaning obedient to, Cuomo.
Last February, to get land for the authority, the Empire State board, of which Hoyt is a member, voted to buy an abandoned old folks home for almost three times its appraised value. Why? The Bridge Authority still has no site plan. Hoyt’s development agency refused to discuss with me on the record what its plans are, what legal authority it employed to make the offer or whether it plans to close a street that is an Olmsted parkway.
I had better luck with former Mayor Anthony Masiello, up to a point. Cuomo has just named Masiello to the other community seat on the bridge commission. But Masiello heads a large firm that lobbies Cuomo and the Legislature.
Masiello said he would “recuse” himself from any Peace Bridge business that held a conflict of interest. Among his clients are the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, which already has a seat on the board, the NFTA’s law firm, a construction company and an international land use consultant.
Has Masiello given the bridge commission a full list of his clients?
“They haven’t asked me to,” he said.
Masiello said he doesn’t know what the state’s plans are for the recent property buy.
Did the governor himself ask him to take the job?
“No,” Masiello answered. He declined to name Cuomo’s “staff member” who offered the non-paying commission post to him.
Now, there’s open government for you!