Buffalo Common Council Summary: Week of October 23, 2023

Date: October 27, 2023

By Regine Ndanga, Megan Battista, and Caitlin Crowell

Each week, PPG summarizes important takeaways from the major Buffalo Common Council meetings. We also include information from council meetings related to our Community Agenda items. If you want to learn more about how the council meetings work and how you can get involved, check out our guide.

For this summary, we will report on the Community Development, Finance, Civil Service, Legislation, and Police Oversight committee meetings. ‘Council Member’ is abbreviated as CM; ‘Council President’ as CP; and ‘Majority Leader’ as ML.

The Finance Committee meeting began with Keith Ogden, President of AFSCME Local 2651, who spoke about the Buffalo building inspectors’ new contract with the city. It was ratified with near unanimity. It includes higher wages for the inspectors, but it also decreases retirement health insurance coverage for new employees. ML Rivera was concerned about the decreased coverage, particularly for younger workers. The committee moved to approve the contract.

Lisa Hicks, Director of Development at the Office of Strategic Planning (OSP), came to speak about the city’s $10 million agreement with the land bank corporation (BENLIC) for infill construction (building in lands within already-developed neighborhoods) to create more low- and moderate-income housing. 

The council discussed the mayor’s press conference about the rollout of applications for COVID relief funds for small businesses. Hicks said that OSP simplified the design to make it easier for businesses to apply. ML Rivera said that few small businesses in Niagara District made between $500,000 and $1.5 million in revenue, the required annual income to qualify for the maximum $25,000 grant.

The Police Oversight Committee met this week, for just the second time in 2023. CM Bollman, CM Nowakowski, and ML Rivera, were in attendance. The Community Police Advisory Committee did not send a representative.

ML Rivera asked Police Commissioner Joseph Gramaglia about response times for drugstore robberies. They range from a few minutes to several hours, the commissioner said. On the topic of youth car thefts, Gramaglia expressed dismay that when young people commit crimes, their cases go to Family Court. As a result, the cases don’t go on their records. “How many [cars] have they stolen,” he wondered, “before we actually are fortunate enough to be able to arrest them and get them into the system?”

CM Bollman asked about the Behavioral Health Team (BHT), the city police unit responsible for responding to some behavioral crisis calls; after police arrive, they may then request that a BHT unit also be brought in. Bollman wondered whether it could be enhanced so that the police’s role in mental health and substance abuse issues could be minimized. Partnership for the Public Good and its partners are working on a pilot Community Responder Team, which would remove police from responding to most low-risk calls related to mental health and substance use, unless there was an imminent risk of harm. Commissioner Gramaglia said that the BPD had added two new officers to the BHT team.

City resident La Kicia Hughes spoke about the citizen’s complaint process for police officers. Hughes said the city charter is not being followed, and that police department procedures for making complaints, obtaining forms, and establishing the “legitimacy” of complaints is problematic. Hughes said, for example, that police at her local station had dismissed her instead of letting her file a complaint.

Commissioner Gramaglia also spoke about the BPD’s plan to purchase new guns and holsters. When an officer pulls a gun from one of these new holsters, it will turn on all nearby body cameras.

In the Legislation Committee meeting, CM Nowakoski expressed concerns about the growing, often unlicensed short-term rental market (e.g. Airbnb rentals) in his district. These have become a source of concern and disharmony between residents, he said.

The Civil Service Committee meeting began with a declaration by CM Wyatt, stating his intention not to approve of any city job positions until an emergency manager (in the wake of last year’s blizzard) is hired. CM Nowakowski and ML Rivera applauded this gesture but decided to approve people for hourly positions.

This week in the Community Development Committee, health professionals and other Buffalo residents testified in favor of a ban on menthol smoking products. They disapproved of the appropriation of Black culture by menthol tobacco manufacturers and the relentless marketing of smoking products to young people. They also explained that tobacco stores are disproportionately located in poorer neighborhoods.

Many speakers from the community testified that menthol smoking products are targeting and harming the Black community, contributing to the death of 45,000 black people each year. Menthol has already been banned in Massachusetts, Canada, and the European Union.

Assistant Corporate Counsel Gordon reported that the state, not local municipalities, controls smoking sales. She suggested that the city has other ways to discourage menthol products, though she did not go into details.

Two people spoke out in opposition to a menthol ban. One person said that making a health issue into a criminal one will contribute to further over policing of Black neighborhoods. Another speaker warned that banning menthol would increase cross border smuggling of products.

CMs Scanlon, Bowman, Wyatt, and Wingo stated their support for a menthol ban.

Community member Craig Speers spoke to the council regarding snow emergency preparedness.  He noted that fire stations had not yet been stocked with supplies, and he recommended the city purchase additional emergency response vehicles. CM Golombek reported that National Grid had been invited to speak at an upcoming meeting about what they are going to do to protect electrical transformers in case of a major storm.

Many people came to speak about renaming Broderick Park (at the foot of Ferry in Niagara District) “Freedom Park.” The vast majority were in favor. The committee motioned to approve the name change, and it will be voted upon in the next regular meeting.

In another public hearing, the council heard a motion to rename the MLK Jr Park Casino the Joyce Wilson Nixon Park Casino. Public comments were opened by Jeff Nixon, Joyce’s husband, former Buffalo Bills player, and Youth Bureau director. Nixon talked about Joyce’s legacy at the casino. Joyce Nixon was responsible for the maintenance and success of the National Inner Cities Youth Opportunities group that met at Martin Luther King Park Community Center.

Community members spoke about her public and community service, and her love, advocacy, and service for young people. Joyce’s daughter closed out public comments by stating that Joyce’s legacy aligned with the work of MLK Jr. and her commitment to the building was enduring so having it carry her name would be meaningful to their family and to the community.

Buffalo scientists presented information about the coming eclipse on April 8th, 2024. According to some estimates, 250,000 to one million people could come to Buffalo. Paul Moretti from Penn Dixie expressed that the city needs to consider traffic, parking, businesses, and economic effects. Additionally, Erie County will pass out eclipse glasses.

CM Bollman mentioned the WARM UP Act, which the council passed in February, requiring additional snow emergency shelters. The mayor’s snow emergency plan designates nine locations for warming centers, one per district. CM Bollman feels this number is too small and is working to see if schools can be used as additional locations.