(EDITOR'S NOTE: The choice for Niagara Falls mayor is a momentous one and perhaps nowhere has there been published an in-depth interview with mayoral challenger Johnny Destino that shows the approach and style differences between him and the incumbent, Mayor Paul Dyster. For the purpose of helping voters in Niagara Falls determine who they want for their next mayor, the Niagara Falls Reporter has selected numerous issues it has previously reported on -- and has been strongly critical of, concerning Dyster's governance -- and presented these in writing to Destino to respond solely as he saw fit. The following questions and comments are unedited, in the precise order they were presented, and are Destino's complete, candid and no-holds-barred responses.)
Reporter: What is your view of the fact that Mayor Paul Dyster used $13,500 of taxpayer money to make his own street a historic district?
Destino: While Dyster was busy wasting resources by having his neighborhood designated a historic district, the residents of LaSalle were left to fend for themselves against FEMA who were busy updating the flood maps -- in a blatant grab for cash -- because of Dyster's inability to hire a skilled engineer to protect us.
Reporter: Dyster said he came to change politics as usual, then appointed his campaign manager's wife as city court judge.
Destino: While Judge Vitello is a highly qualified and competent City Court Judge (and incidentally, the only good hire Dyster has made), this exposes him as the typical political insider he really is. The fact that he didn't even interview other candidates makes him no different than the Niagara Falls School Board members who hired our current superintendent in a similar fashion. This demonstrates a lack of respect for the citizens whose interests we are elected to protect.
Reporter: Dyster left veterans at their Memorial Monument groundbreaking ceremony to cavort with the Japanese ambassador.
Destino: This demonstrates not only a politically tin-ear, but is reflective and consistent with his view that he is above the parochial citizens of this city and will jump at the chance to surround himself with elite "citoyennes du monde" (citizens of the world).
Reporter: Dyster's wife, Rebecca, decided to reconnect with her Italian roots and joined the Cristoforo Colombo Society just before the primary. Does her sudden interest in Italia have anything to do with the fact that Dyster's opponent is Italian?
Destino: I don't want to speculate about Mrs. Dyster's reasons for joining the society. I have no reason to believe they were anything but sincere. I would like to comment on the disgusting use of heritage as a political issue in this city going back for decades now. This city's decline has had devastating effects on all of us, regardless of what ethnicity we identify ourselves as.
Reporter: Dyster says he's a member of Mensa, a club where you pay for a certificate that says you are smarter than 98 percent of the rest of us.
Destino: A friend of mine, who is a member of Mensa, checked the membership directory and Mayor Dyster's name was not listed.
Regardless, high IQ doesn't automatically translate into being an effective leader. I've never taken a test to see where I rank because it's not important for me to feel superior to anyone. I believe I demonstrate every day that I am not afraid to challenge the status quo or make the hard decisions even if I have to stand alone. Everyone has an intrinsic value and unique skills, no matter what their IQ. A good leader can draw out those strengths from you that you might not have known even existed.
Reporter: Dyster decided to hire out-of-town people to serve as department heads at City Hall earning $100,000 and upwards. Formerly, department heads made $60,000. In effect, he told people in Niagara Falls they were essentially neither bright nor honest enough to serve in top positions in his administration.
Destino: This arrogant attitude is the top reason why so many voters decided to stay home during the Democrat primary. One gentleman I met during my walking tours told me, "Since I'm not smart enough to vote for Dyster, you've got my vote."
Reporter: He created a fund, Building a Better Niagara, where wealthy men from Buffalo were to pay part of the new, higher salaries at City Hall. He claimed he did not know who the people were who pledged a million dollars to pay for these out-of-town hires. Why would rich people from Buffalo want to pay salaries for City Hall workers in Niagara Falls? How could Dyster not know who they were?
Destino: Dyster's claims of ignorance in this matter are about as believable as his claims that he didn't know he was accepting over $3,000 from John Gross in 2007. He wants us to believe he is truly naive, but he's been involved in local politics for well over a decade and is part of the good ol' boy network that's been holding us back and selling out our name for personal glory. I believe there needs to be a full investigation to find out just what he did know and make him answerable for this breach of the public trust. The City Council was right to cut off this practice but the damage was already done to our taxpayers. Dyster likes to say his administration is scandal-free, but just because the local newspaper and the authorities have turned a blind eye to the matter, doesn't make it go away.
Reporter: Dyster hired a Los Angeles engineer, then fired him for not having an engineering license, something he forgot to check while vetting him; an economic development director from Ohio, who failed to create a single private-sector job; an unemployed man from Florida for fire chief, fired for making racial slurs; a lawyer from Buffalo who subs out most legal work to Buffalo lawyers; and a garbage collection bureaucrat who knows nothing about this city, Donna Owens of Atlanta, as city administrator.
Destino: Dyster's complete lack of executive experience prior to entering office (and hiring your family members to run a family business doesn't count) has been his greatest failure in office and has cost us millions of dollars. As a matter of basic due diligence, all of these people should have been vetted before offers were made. In some instances, it would have been enough to simply make a couple phone calls, or conduct an Internet search of their names. I have the necessary management experience to put together a team capable of running this city effectively. During my time at the Seneca Gaming Corporation, I was responsible for managing the hiring and implementation of the technical services department during all phases of construction of the Seneca Allegany Casino.
Reporter: Dyster hijacked the story of comedian Dan Aykroyd, who came to town to honor the owner of Supermarket Liquors and Wines, whose store sold the most bottles of Aykroyd's new brand of vodka. Dyster rushed to the liquor store and pushed his way to the front to read a proclamation and give Aykroyd a key to the city and spun the media story away from the liquor store and owner and it became a Dyster/Aykroyd story.
Destino: This is Dyster's modus operandi -- jump in front of every project and lay claim for its success (e.g., Airport, Culinary Art Institute, etc. ...). Why he hasn't done so with the Nik Wallenda event is beyond me and if the city isn't on board soon, we will lose a fantastic opportunity to benefit from this worldwide event.
Reporter: One of Dyster's campaign contributors, James Glynn, bought an 80-foot-tall hotel, the Comfort Inn. Dyster then pushed for a midget downtown with 80-foot maximum heights for all new downtown buildings.
Destino: The height restriction on buildings in our downtown area is but one of the many reasons developers have decided to sit on vacant land. We know the Senecas have plans for 40-plus and 50-plus-story hotels on their footprint. Why you would seek to limit the height other developers are able to build can only be explained by crony capitalism -- protecting your campaign donors' interests to the exclusion of others. The entire plan adopted in 2009 was a list of solutions to problems we didn't have. No one was beating down our door to build downtown and now we've made it more costly and more restrictive to do so.
Reporter: Almost everyone who does business with the city donates to Dyster's campaign. This is a matter of public record. There are more donors from Buffalo than Niagara Falls. Why?
Destino: Dyster is a crony-capitalist and it's a major reason we have such high unemployment and public-works projects that have cost overruns in the millions of dollars. Dyster has been complaining about a contribution I received from a beauty supply company in Florida. The truth is the donation is from a family member who has left town and moved his business to another state because of the burdensome taxes our city imposes on businesses.
Reporter: Dyster botched the Lewiston Road job because there was no licensed city engineer. The contractor, David Pfeiffer of Man O' Trees, accused Dyster of ordering an illegal coverup of radiation problems, prompting some to suggest Dyster risked residents' safety simply because it's election time.
Destino: Dyster owns the failure of the Lewiston Road project. From the beginning, he left us exposed by hiring an unlicensed engineer and then failed to recognize that there was something wildly wrong with the low bid. Anytime you see a variance of over $1 million from low bid to the next low bid for a road project, where everyone is paying relatively the same costs for material, you need to scrutinize it. This project should have been winding up this month; instead Dyster granted them a six-month extension to kick the can down the road past election time.
Reporter: Dyster fired City Engineer Bob Curtis, after Curtis promised to monitor the new courthouse construction. Campaign contributors (Ciminelli) built the courthouse. Campaign contributors (LiRo Engineers) monitored construction. LiRo got more than $350,000 to monitor courthouse construction. The developer got more than $3 million in extras for the job. Dyster got campaign contributions from them before and after the courthouse was completed.
Dyster declined to hire an engineer for most of his tenure. Wendel, Foit-Albert, Urban and LiRo Engineering of Buffalo (campaign donors to Dyster) got millions because the city happened not to have an engineer.
Destino: Almost every decision Dyster has made since being in office can be traced back to a campaign contributor benefitting or advancing his own personal interests. I am going to end this practice and make sure that everyone benefits, including our local workers, when public money is used. We simply can't afford four more years of Dyster kickbacks.
Dyster secured $150,000 for LiRo to draw design plans for vendor booths on Old Falls Street. They could have been built for less than what will be spent to study and design them. Dyster got LiRo $19,200 just to study how a roof could be installed (not to do the work) at the fire department administration building.
LiRo got $30,000 to design a simple outdoor basketball court on 10th Street. You could build an outdoor basketball court for $30,000.
Destino: Dyster suffers from paralysis by analysis. His inability to make a tough decision has become an expensive proposition for the residents of this city. I won't hesitate to do what's right or necessary if it's the right thing to do. I realize that being mayor means the buck stops with me. We can save thousands of those bucks, however, simply by avoiding the practice of using professional service contracts to circumvent the bid process in favor of campaign contributors.
Reporter: Dyster approved a $10,000 grant for James Ventry -- who was convicted of jury tampering after being accused of a home invasion -- for an amateur violent movie Ventry was making.
Destino: This is another example of throwing economic development money down the drain. How many long-term, private sector, living-wage jobs is this venture likely to create? None. Perhaps Dyster believes that, as with his concert series, we can create a false cinematic reputation in our city by making believe it is so. I predict Senator Schumer will issue a press release soon declaring that he has invited a private company to meet with our mayor to discuss producing films in our city.
Reporter: Dyster tried to execute a plan (with matching grant money) to pave portions of Jayne Park and turn it into a regional park. He may, if re-elected, push the plan again. What is your position on Jayne Park?
Destino: I have met with residents of Cayuga Island and they are uniformly against turning their natural oasis into another commercialized, over-developed park. This money is simply burning a hole in Dyster's pocket and he is willing to alienate the citizens of Cayuga Island to waste tax dollars just so he can get his name on another plaque.
Reporter: Dyster wants to give $450,000 to so-called successful Idaho developer Mark Rivers to develop a Holiday Market. The Market, according to Rivers, will make millions. Dyster says this is proof that big things happen in Niagara Falls. If the project is lucrative, why doesn't Rivers pay for his own Holiday Market?
Destino: Whether this project can make money is yet to be seen, but if it were as sure a thing as Rivers suggests he certainly would have put up more of his own capital. I am sorry if I am beginning to sound like a broken record but this event will create no long-term sustainable living-wage jobs and is another example of wasted economic development dollars.
Reporter: Dyster got Hard Rock Cafe $600,000 in public money to put on a series of poorly attended concerts by mainly has-been artists. Hard Rock is a billion-dollar corporation owned by the Seminole Nation of Indians. They keep the profits from concessions. Dyster picks the acts and has appeared drunk on stage introducing the acts. Why can't Hard Rock pay for its own concerts?
Destino: Dyster's concert series has had direct negative impacts on several local businesses during the height of the tourist season. This series has done nothing to generate any additional revenue for the city and has produced no long term benefits. We shouldn't be competing with local entrepreneurs and damaging their ability to realize a return on their private investments.
Reporter: In a recent newsletter, Dyster takes credit for the new Wal-Mart. The Wal-Mart project goes back to former mayor Vince Anello. Dyster had nothing to do with it. Dyster tells voters the airport literally took off during his administration. The $32 million capital infusion and efforts to develop the new terminal were the work of the Niagara Frontier Transit Authority and the Niagara County Industrial Development Agency, headed by Henry Sloma and state Sen. George Maziarz.
Dyster fought the mainly Republican team that oversaw airport expansion and chose instead to concentrate on a train station project (that he controls) that will seat fewer travelers in a year than the airport will in a day.
Dyster also took credit for 300 industrial jobs (about 90 per year) that were created during his tenure. He had nothing to do with most of them. He does not mention the city lost at least 10 times that many jobs, with local businesses failing during his tenure.
Destino: Dyster is the unemployment mayor. At the beginning of 2011, our city's unemployment rate was over 12 percent. I know the national economy has been particularly volatile the last couple years, but the national average is only 9.1 percent and New York state is doing significantly better than that at only 7.7 percent. Worse yet, Dyster has done nothing to protect the few remaining jobs our city has left. He allowed Unifrax, an employer of over 90 highly paid workers right here in Niagara Falls, to leave without a fight. And worse yet, one of his pet projects may have been the reason he let them go because he needed their lot for parking. Dyster has not only been unable to create new jobs, but he is actively encouraging the few employers left to close up shop. I have met with members of the Niagara County IDA and they informed me that the city has established no relationship with them during Dyster's administration. Perhaps if he had done so, we could have offered Unifrax a better deal than the one the Empire State Development Corp. used to lure them to Erie County.
Reporter: Dyster calls himself the "paving mayor," yet the streets here are worse than at any time in the city's history.
Destino: First of all, paving roads is an obligation, not an achievement. We're paying for it -- it's the very least he could do. And instead of paving as many roads as possible, he should have been paving as many as we are able to do properly. People are noticing how quickly the resurfacing is coming up and we'll now have to pay twice as much to repair them again.
Reporter: Crime seems rampant in Niagara Falls, yet Dyster signed a consent order with the Attorney General that hamstrings police in dangerous split-second decision making. The order Dyster quickly signed (without defending police) said our police force is racist and must be second-guessed, because allegedly they handled a couple dozen criminals -- who would be glad to beat the daylights out of you some dark night -- not gently enough.
Destino: As mayor, I will be my police force's strongest advocate. As they are charged to serve and protect us, I am going to use my power as mayor to make sure that they are not hindered in their ability to make those split-second life and death decisions by some bureaucrat. The right and proper thing for the mayor to do would have been to defend the honor of the uniformed officers against this politically charged blanket indictment. It appears that Dyster sold them out to build up his liberal bona-fides for when he decides to seek out his next higher office. I am only concerned about Niagara Falls and making it a better and safer place to live. Instead of concentrating on actual instances of abuse, we are now wasting valuable resources by assuming everyone's a suspect. I am sure this has had a demoralizing effect within the department.
Reporter: Niagara Falls has the highest property taxes in proportion to the value of its real estate in America. Dyster raised taxes 4 percent. Another tax increase is expected next year.
Destino: Dyster is a typical tax-and-spend liberal. He has no other weapon in his arsenal to combat high unemployment, a shrinking tax base, shuttered businesses or any other social ill beset upon us by 40 years of big-government excess. When your typical publicly financed projects have cost overruns of 50 percent or more, he comes after us to make up the difference for his failures. We won't see real, sustained growth in this city until we slash the non-homestead tax rate so that our local small business owners are able to do more than just keep their doors open.
Destino: This issue, more than any other, sets me apart from Dyster. Look around the world right now and you will see that we are no longer operating in the theoretical realm of an endless money supply. There isn't enough money left to spend our way to prosperity -- it doesn't work. It hasn't worked in 40 years. It can't work. I am running now because I don't believe we will have a city left after four more years of mass exodus for want of opportunity.
Reporter: The Seneca Casino money (about $40 million) has been withheld by the Seneca Nation for two years. They think they can operate tax-free without paying the host city. They can. For Dyster, who is supposed to be our watchdog, says nothing, not even a bleat, yet he is the guy who wants us to believe he stared down the Soviets.
Destino: Dyster's failure to protect our interests in this matter is a complete lack of backbone. We are not helpless victims in this fight between New York State and the Seneca Nation of Indians. The land taken by eminent domain and transferred to the SNI in 2006 is not currently sovereign territory and should be returned to the tax rolls. They own the land the same way they own the Lewiston golf course -- which is taxable property. The Senecas are good neighbors and an asset to this community, but we need to let them know that we won't sit idly by. They can either help by paying their fair share or we need to come to an agreement to have them fund some of the projects and agencies covered by casino dollars directly.
Reporter: Dyster de-prioritized federal money that would have paved Buffalo Avenue, and instead put the money into a train station project that, if completed, will perhaps seat 20 riders a day. What is your view?
Destino: Dyster is only interested in helping out campaign contributors and funding his own legacy with our tax money. This (train station) boondoggle will cost us many millions more in the future than we will ever realize for the investment. LaSalle residents are rightfully annoyed at the lack of attention the Dyster administration has given them these last four years. And from what I hear on the ground, they aren't fooled by the recent activity he's orchestrated in time for the election season. It's too late. The Buffalo Avenue corridor should be a thriving economic powerhouse for the city, but the decision to ignore developing the few remaining waterfront parcels (opting instead to add another park right before election time) and improve the dangerous roadway means we are years away from realizing this area's full potential.