NORTH TONAWANDA, N.Y. — A raucous North Tonawanda Common Council meeting is not unique.
"This has become the new norm; the new norm of four against one," concerned North Tonawanda resident Darlene Bolsover said.
Bolsover is a lifelong North Tonawandan who has been attending Council meetings regularly for the past several years.
One reason for the “new norm” is the imbalance of power with five council members -- four of them Republicans, plus a Republican mayor -- versus a lone Democrat. He’s a 29-year-old architectural and design consultant named Austin Tylec, who on November 2 won the election to serve as the city's new mayor on January first.
"You don't have a plan! Time out! I'm still talking!" Third Ward Alderman Frank DiBernardo shouted at last week’s Council meeting.
The latest controversy that has many residents upset is what appears to be a backroom deal to change the city's proposed budget for 2022, cutting the new mayor's office staff in half.
“It really just seems like the Council is trying to control that department and, you know, hamstring me, I suppose," Tylec said.
Back in September, the current mayor submitted a budget to the Common Council for 2022, and in it, the mayor's office is fully funded at about $136,000. But on the day after the election, on November 3, a revision was made, cutting out $38,000 earmarked for the mayor's secretary.
2 On Your Side’s Maryalice Demler sat down with current North Tonawanda Mayor Arthur Pappas to ask about the city’s budget process, and specifically about how the 2022 proposed budget was changed.
"Did you ask the city accountant to reduce that line item?" Demler asked.
"No, what, what happens is, I submit the budget. Once I submit it to the Council, it's all in their hands,” Mayor Pappas.
As required by law, the North Tonawanda Common Council held a public budget hearing in October. And according to the record, no changes to the mayor's office funding were proposed or even discussed.
In fact, the Republican councilmembers told 2 On Your Side the decision to cut the secretary position was made long before that meeting.
“We all agreed, and all council members up there agreed that we discussed it this summer, that it was going to be completely removed," said Common Council President Robert Pecoraro.
Four councilmembers said their reason for removing the secretary was because the position has been vacant for nearly two years, mostly because of the COVID pandemic. But since all city departments were asked to "do more with less," so should the new mayor.
But Tylec says he did not take part in the Republican council members' summer meeting, nor did he make any agreement. As proof, he shared an email North Tonawanda City Accountant Jeff Zellner sent to him on September 29, the day after the Mayor’s 2022 Budget was made public on the government website Cleargov.com.
In the email, Zellner is responding to several questions Tylec posed about the budget, among them, the funding of the new mayor’s office to pre-pandemic levels. Zellner, who assisted Mayor Pappas with the preparation of the budget, confirms those dollar figures and explains the mayor intentions by writing:
“These are the figures from (the) previous decade. Last year, we didn’t budget for the secretary, just (the) assistant. But the office needs to get back to full staff with us going away from COVID.”
The councilmembers never replied or disputed those statements to the group email.
Demler asked each of the four Republican Councilmembers individually to show proof of their summer meeting. But none of them took notes, nor could they even agree on the date of the alleged meeting.
So the question remains: How did the city budget get changed online?
Councilmember DiBernardo admitted at a recent Common Council meeting that he was the one who called City Accountant Jeff Zellner and told him to change the budget number.
"I saw that in there. I called Jeff and said, 'I thought we agreed to remove this. We all agreed on this early summer, when you two (Tylec and Pecoraro) were running for mayor. We ran for two years without it. We agreed we were going to remove it.' I said, 'Jeff, remove it.' "
(Reporter note: Maryalice Demler placed six phone calls to City Accountant Jeff Zellner, spoke with his secretary and left several voicemail messages. None of them were returned. Demler also visited Zellner’s City Hall office in person. His secretary said he was off that day but assured her she was giving him the messages.)
"Well, that's a real problem,” said attorney and Open Meeting Law expert Paul Wolfe, Esq.
“And under New York State's Open Meeting Laws, public business is supposed to be conducted in public," he added.
Wolfe is also the founder of an organization called the New York Coalition for Open Government. He says there's no such thing as an "informal budget meeting" that is out of the public view when it comes to elected leaders discussing how to spend taxpayer money.
"Well, as they readily admit, they changed it, which is shocking! That they didn't seem to see that there was anything wrong with what they did," Wolfe added.
Remember, the funding for the mayor's office was cut the day after the election. Tylec won the office over the current Council President Robert Pecoraro, who leads the Republican majority.
"The accountant made a mistake,” Pecoraro explained.
“He should have taken, removed it from the budget because in the summer before the election, we all, all five councilmembers agreed, that that was going to be removed from the budget," he said.
Wolfe explains the responsibility of elected officials when dealing with public funds.
"Any changes to it (the budget) need to occur in public. And the fact that the budget was actually changed before they had a public meeting is just disturbing," Wolfe said.
Demler asked Mayor Pappas for clarification on the North Tonawanda Common Council’s budget process.
"Does the Council in North Tonawanda have the right to make changes to the budget, add or subtract without the public's knowledge? Without doing it in a public forum on the record?” she asked.
Mayor Pappas replied: "That is something you would have to ask the legal department. I really don't keep track of that."
“When you conduct business this way, it just fuels the thought that, you know, shady dealings are going on. That things aren't, you know, being on the up,” added Wolfe.
North Tonawanda resident Darlene Bolsover said she wants city leaders to be accountable.
"Our city needs to stop playing games and join the residents in making North Tonawanda great," she said.