In 2007, before he was mayor, Paul Dyster successfully lobbied the Niagara Falls City Council to spend taxpayer dollars to repair the roof of the former Niagara Falls high school, whose occupants were operating then, as they are now, as the Niagara Arts and Cultural Center, or the NACC.
The talented Dyster eventually co-opted or took a kind of political control of the NACC through its board (with clever placement of family and friends on its board of directors), and following his election as mayor, Dyster had a power base of friendly community supporters.
He could provide them with ample reason to keep him in office.
Witness, for example, Dyster's recent approval of $10,000 of taxpayer money for a grant to make a rather amateurish movie called "Crimson." It is surprising to expect taxpayers of this broken-down city to fund a movie whose theme is violence, vulgarity and sex, until you remember that the movie is being filmed at the NACC and stars some longtime NACC people. In fact, the producer said the film has more than 60 local people working on it in one capacity or another.
One assumes some of these work on Dyster's campaign in one capacity or another.
Dyster also has located his own radio station inside the NACC. Well actually, in fairness, it is not entirely his own radio station, but rather his own radio broadcasting facility.
A happy partnership with local broadcaster Tom Darro facilitates this nicely. Darro has a daily morning radio show on WJJL and broadcasts live from the NACC building. Darro is, in my opinion, a genuine radio talent, an intelligent interviewer and a man well aware of local news. Darro usually is insightful and keenly on his game regarding issues facing the Niagara region.
However, locating his WJJL morning talk show in the Dyster-controlled NACC facility apparently has left the otherwise dynamic Darro a little tepid whenever Dyster appears on his show. Many people around town have come to refer to the modest WJJL office as Radio-free Dyster. And Darro's show functions -- at least during this election season -- as a monthly one-hour platform for Dyster's own talk show. Unlike when other politicians appear on his show, Darro serves Dyster a steady diet of puffballs.
On Oct. 11, for instance, Darro hosted Dyster and opened the phone lines, purportedly to any and all callers. Before the calls, the mayor began with a little choice invective against our good friend and advertiser John Gross and of the fact that Gross apparently gave some slight contribution to Dyster's opponent, Johnny Destino.
Of course, Dyster did not mention that he himself has received more campaign contributions from Buffalo business people with business before the city than he has from Niagara Falls residents. Gross is at least from Niagara Falls.
Soon the action began. Darro opened the phone lines. Judging by the calls, one is inclined to suspect they were carefully screened to allow only those with pro-Dyster proclivities to speak on the air.
Caller No. 1 complimented the mayor on his leadership and then -- I kid you not -- took his personal time with the mayor to complain about a barking dog in his neighborhood.
The mayor sympathized deeply with the caller.
"No one should have to put up with that," the mayor said.
The caller could have expressed similar dissatisfaction with gun play on our city streets, which is at least as loud as barking dogs, but barking dogs are more pressing for some.
Caller No. 2 was Chris Kudela, brother-in-law of Kathie Kudela, executive director of the NACC. On air, Mr. Kudela continued to excel in his well-known role as chief apologist for Dyster. Kudela was aglow over a mayoral announcement that a simple request for proposals (RFP) on the old balloon parcel on Rainbow Boulevard was being offered. Understand, an RFP is not development -- it is merely a request for developers to propose something to develop.
It takes no genius of government efficacy to ask developers to offer ideas for this key downtown parcel that long has been underutilized. Indeed, the RFP for that site seems so long overdue that one wonders if it were not timed to be announced during the election season.
Nevertheless, this gave the mayor an opportunity to wax poetic about all the wondrous things his administration eventually could get to locate at the troubled downtown parcel, which earlier this year was the site of a city-owned parking lot that doubled as a locale for a crime ring selling stolen park attraction passes.
Kudela went on to absolve Dyster of any possible culpability in the Niagara Falls Water Board's hoped-for plan to reap profits -- and hefty salary increases for its key people -- by taking chemically tainted fracking water from around the state and processing or treating it in Niagara Falls, then releasing it into the Niagara River for us to consume in our homes.
Dyster said, "It's only hypothetical. No one said it's actually going to be done."
Hypothetical? Like the odds of hypothetically getting cancer?
But the mayor could not bring himself to say whether he thought it was a good idea or a bad idea, nor to discuss that experts have said this could endanger the entire Great Lakes basin. Of course, there are millions involved and lobbyists working diligently. Dyster's reluctance to commit to a position may be a sign that the fix is in from Albany, and that the one man who could stop it -- the mayor -- probably will remain silent.
If he's pimping in the background for the fracking deal, his re-election means Niagara Falls will treat and release fracking wastewater, and the only hypothetical aspect will be whether the fracking wastewater really can be safely treated and released into the Niagara River -- something that may not be determined for decades.
Darro, who surely knows all about the issue, did not ask Dyster whether he supported or opposed it.
Caller No. 3 was a pleasant older woman. She started by praising the mayor for filling the potholes and wrapped up her gushing call with "I hope you win!"
A mayor might get praise for filling a pothole -- but have you driven down the streets lately? Are the potholes filled? Like crime and unemployment, the streets are the worst they ever have been.
Caller No. 4 was a senior female who timidly inquired about the status of the Lewiston Road project. This is a Dyster road project gone amok --millions over budget and years behind the projected completion date. It was signed off on by an Iranian unlicensed engineer, lured from Los Angeles to Niagara Falls as part of the out-of-town hiring plan initiated by Dyster.
Two months ago, the contractor, Man O' Trees owner David Pfeiffer, accused Dyster of covering up the fact that there was buried radioactive material on that road.
Dyster assured the gentle caller that there is no dangerous radiation on site, and she -- trusting soul -- was fully satisfied. She thanked him for his "honesty" and then said, "I voted for you in the primary!"
Caller No. 5 somehow slipped through Darro's razor wire. The caller respectfully asked the mayor if he ever had accepted campaign cash from John Gross. It was interesting, indeed. The caller dared question Dyster with a "good for the goose, good for the gander" argument.
Dyster, it seems, had accepted campaign contributions from Gross when he first ran for mayor.
But Dyster, the consummate campaign contortionist, missed not a beat. He said, "I accepted the cash from David Gross, not John Gross. I was politically naive at the time and I had no idea that they were father and son."
Where had he been? Dyster was a council member for four years and active in the community. He had voted to approve bids for Gross as council member. He was the chairman of the Niagara Experience Center and an activist for the NACC.
Dyster said with a straight face that he accepted money from David Gross Contracting on Niagara Street, not knowing it was connected to John Gross, who operates the company. If this statement had been made on television and not radio, I am convinced the audience would have seen a nose growing involuntarily before their very eyes.
Dyster appointed the wife of his campaign manager as a city court judge and denied any conflict of interest. This is the same mayor who took cash from nameless, faceless Buffalo lobbyists and denied knowing who the Buffalo contributors were or what they wanted. He said he did not know that David Gross is related to John Gross. He's marvelous.
What the mayor never addressed, and what neither Darro nor his callers asked -- perhaps were not allowed to ask -- was anything remotely related to topics of real import, such as street crime, shootings, or the amazing fact that the Seneca Nation has not paid their required casino cash in two years ($40 million) to the host city -- of which Dyster is mayor. Dyster has been silent as a lamb.
Also not discussed on Darro's show were the deficient lighting on Pine Avenue; the potential destruction of Jayne Park; the 2012 budget and Dyster's likely tax increase next year; the Wallenda wire walk; the troubling arrests within the city police department; the failed, highly paid out-of-town department heads; the rising violent crime rate; the Attorney General's consent order that second-guesses the police in critical decision-making moments; the millions paid to legal and planning consultants; the scandalous cost of the courthouse ... well, you get the picture.
The real issues were avoided on Radio-free Dyster.
But can you blame Dyster? After all, if you were running for your life on his record of achievement, would you rather talk about the tough subjects or about barking dogs?