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Niagara County’s Independence Party is a total sham! Here’s what you need to know …

Niagara County’s Independence Party is a total sham! Here’s what you need to know …

by Joseph KisselFebruary 13, 2019
Independent journalist Joseph Kissel — who’s running for the Niagara County Legislature’s 9th District seat — ruffles feathers at Independence Party endorsement interview.

“The worst interview I’ve ever had!” exclaimed Independence Party of Niagara County chairperson Susan Agnello-Eberwein at the conclusion of independent journalist Joseph Kissel’s interview seeking the Independence Party’s endorsement.

The roughly 20-minute interview with seven members of the executive committee of Niagara County’s Independence Party started off congenially and innocently enough at 4 p.m. Saturday in one of the side rooms of Wheatfield’s Community Center off Niagara Falls Blvd.

The first question seemed fairly innocuous: “What made you want to get into politics?”

As the only independent professional journalist in Niagara County, during my answer I mentioned at the Niagara County Legislature how sometimes I was the only resident or journalist in the audience, and I found the lack of community and media outreach not a best practice.

One of the committee members countered that a Buffalo News reporter is at every meeting, an assertion that is categorically and verifiably incorrect. Since December 2017 I’ve attended almost every legislature meeting, and I sit at the media desk in the seat assigned to the Buffalo News reporter.

Apparently, correcting the record triggered this committee member and without further ado she shot from her seat and uttered: “I’m not taking this!” 

Bolting from the room, that’s basically how the interview started.

Before that dramatic moment — and any hope of an endorsement — I talked about how I was there Dec. 12, 2017, when the Niagara County Legislature voted themselves 30 percent raises after stating they wouldn’t before their elections.

The whole process of implementing salary increases of that magnitude was not only poorly executed but also incredibly deceptive and deceitful, a talking point that seemed to measurably sour this room of “Independents.”

(Although it’s known in local political circles the executive committee of Niagara County’s Independence Party has basically backed and endorsed majority-party incumbents — exclusively — it seemed increasingly clear to me that these people were more than that … they were “friends and family.”)

I reminded these “Independents” how my opponent was conveniently absent from the Legislature the night of the 30-percent salary-increase vote, evading a controversial and, for those tuned in, highly criticized action. When asked at the next meeting why he wasn’t there, all my opponent, my county legislator, said was, utterly cryptically, “Why do you think?”

As I seek to represent the residents of Niagara County’s 9th District — and all of Niagara by extension with my working journalist’s knowledge and love of this county — I will be forthcoming with residents about all the moves the county is thinking of making. I will be proactive with sharing information, and speak out when I see the public is being kept out of the process, misled or under-informed.

As an independent professional journalist, anything less is not in my nature.

I also spoke about how as a “fiscal conservative” I would have not voted in favor of re-instating the county’s full-time public relations position, which entails periodically writing press releases for the benefit of the various legislators to the tune of almost $80,000 a year in salary and health benefits. A year. Forever. That adds up! 

One of the points I made repeatedly during the interview — which didn’t really seem to interest the panel — is that I want to lower homeowners’ taxes.

“People leave this area because of the high taxes,” Kissel said. “The only way Niagara County can turn this around is by generating a reputation for *lowering* taxes.”

When these low-hanging patronage jobs exist in full view it’s hard to believe the legislature is doing everything they can to lower residents’ increasingly onerous and untenable tax bills. A fresh set of eyes and an independent perspective could be critical here.

I also mentioned the vital importance of open government, increased transparency and even building “data portals” so residents can get fast and convenient online access to virtually all of their county government’s dataset. 

Niagara County Legislature 9th District candidate Joseph Kissel, right, with members of the Buffalo Niagara Coalition for Open Government. Along with treasurer Ed McKee, second from left, and president and founder Paul Wolf, Kissel serves as secretary for the non-partisan advocacy group.

There was more, but in conclusion, I was told I was being “negative” “hateful” and even “cocky.”

I didn’t set out to ruffle feathers Saturday but considering what a true Independent represents to the status quo and the political establishment of the Niagara County Legislature, perhaps it was inevitable.

I replied to the remaining interviewers that I’m passionate, I won’t back down nor accept false information or hidden agendas.

So as I sat there amongst the wreckage of this endorsement interview — another fed-up committee member left the room suddenly — I wondered how an “Independence Party” — and this executive committee of now only five — could take my honest observations so poorly, so personally and attack me so virulently?

It’s because the Niagara County Independence Party — or at least the individuals that control the executive committee and its power of endorsement — is merely a shadowy faction of the county’s majority party, the one that’s been in power for more than 40 years.

Many people, when they choose an “Independence Party” candidate at the polls, do so because they see themself as an “Independent.” Not quite a Democrat *or* a Republican. (And sometimes national events and politics can confuse what’s happening on a local level with party names that don’t really apply; locally, it really just comes down to who holds the majority on power and who does not.)

Historically, if you used your Independence Party vote for their endorsed Independence Party candidate, you voted for Niagara County’s status quo — for 40 years of the same old thing. 

Of course, NT Alderman at Large Austin Tylec flipped that storyline on its head when in 2017 he won the Independence Party primary — after failing to gain the endorsement exactly like I will — and crushing his general-election opponent by an unheard-of 1,000 votes. 

(I still don’t know how Tylec did it — politicking not being my primary passion — but I’m hoping the residents who took a chance and powered him to such an overwhelming victory are willing to do the same for a independent journalist with a record of getting the truth to the people. That’s just not happening now in the Niagara County Legislature even with an extravagantly paid PR person.)

An important part of how this majority party of Niagara County manages to keep its grip on power even with a minority of the public casting votes, is by gaming the system.

By luring “Independents” to the Independence Party line at the ballots, the Niagara County Republican Party gains votes from those seeking change and gives it to the candidates that are running from it. So simple but so effective. For so long.

These endorsed candidates, though, are *not* Independents but the furthest thing from somebody who is willing to entertain a diversity of opinion, not blindly and mindlessly accepting the dictates of party leaders looking to their own benefit.

Two of the committee members in the room Saturday were appointed to positions that follow a direct chain of command to the Niagara County Republicans in the majority-controlled legislature: the recently-appointed struggling NT City Clerk Matt Parish, who for weeks and weeks after starting his job lacked the know-how or fortitude to get vital agendas, minutes and recordings of meetings online. And Jeffrey Glatz, the former county manager defeated by Tylec who’s now Director of Veterans Affairs for the county and was appointed to the high-paying job by a roster of the majority-party faithful.

And right here in this room today.

“The worst interview I’ve ever had!” said Angello-Eberwein.

“At least it was memorable,” said Kissel, trying to find the lighter side of a fairly tumultuous 20+ minutes of back-and-forth.

“I’m not so sure,” she said. “I think I’m going to go home and forget the whole thing.” 

“Somehow, I don’t think so, Susan.”

About The Author
Joseph Kissel
Joseph Kissel is a journalist, editor and photographer. He is also the Vice President of the New York Coalition for Open Government, a non-partisan, non-profit group that advocates for transparency and the public's right to freedom of information.