Want to see an example of downsizing gone bad? Visit Hamburg, New York. Voters there pared the elected town board down from four members to two in a gambit to save $20,000 annually. One year into the arrangement, the politics of the place are putrid and locals are wishing they never downsized.
Today, horrible press, venomous politics, a frivolous lawsuit, and a flurry of nasty emails has sunk "The Town that Friendship Built" to a new low.
Downsizing to just two board members and a supervisor has divided government in Hamburg, a lovely town that gave us consensus builders like Kathy Hochul and Jack Kemp. Laws prohibit a board quorum to meet without proper public notice. Now, two town board members cannot meet with a department head. If they even email each other regarding government business they break the law.
The severe limitations have bred suspicion and resentment among Town officials. In many ways, good government has ground to a halt. It has gotten so bad that Village of Hamburg Mayor Tom Moses dropped by a Town Board meeting to dress the panel down.
Supervisor Steve Walters and Republican town board member Amy Ziegler are Republicans; Joe Collins is the lone Democrat councilman. A Republican-dominated ethics panel censured Collins on ethics charges while lawsuits Collins has filed against the Town have cost taxpayers upwards of $100,000. (Collins has lost every case.) Another $40,000 was paid out to the former police chief to settle a harassment charge he filed against Ziegler.
The 2009 vote to shrink the board and the resulting gridlock hasn't slowed down Walters, who has one of the best records of any town supervisor in New York. He cut the budget every year for eight years. Several of those years, he also cut taxes.
"Steve was a Godsend for this community right when we needed him and he does a great job," said one Hamburg businessman. "But he's no politician and I think this downsizing has taught him some tough lessons."
Some say Walters' good intentions are steered off track by his close friend Peter Reszka, an Erie County Water Authority employee he appointed head of the Town planning board. Reszka served for many years on the Republican Committee with his wife, Elizabeth; both are devoted to the Party. When Elizabeth resigned from the Committee, Peter stayed on as Treasurer.
Unabashed partisans, the Reszka's took Walters' Democrat rival Collins on as a personal project. Collins - who many say has been difficult to work with - is on the receiving end of a recent Reszka lawsuit to remove him from office. The case has created internal Republican upheaval about the merits and wisdom of the lawsuit. After demanding another member resign over the matter last month, Peter Reszka himself quit the Committee with high dudgeon.
"The Republican Party had nothing to do with the Reszka's lawsuit but somehow it landed in our lap," a Hamburg GOP Committee member told me. "Committee members were being asked to fund thousands of dollars in legal expenses when our Party has no business picking this fight with Collins."
Plaintiff Elizabeth Reszka has filed other complaints against Collins, including a charge that he somehow threatened her with an information request. Her carping has paid off: Collins has been reprimanded a few times on party line votes. Liz also has a penchant for penning poison letters. This, from an email she sent to dozens of Hamburg Republicans, berating a member of the Committee:
(Date: January 18, 2013 6:31:57 PM EST)
"Whittmyer you absolutely put the "STU" in STUPID did you even understand what Peter was asking ? No, that's obvious, he was asking the people on a list if they would get involved to help defray the cost of an action against a dishonest POLITICIAN ! The way you wrote that statement Collins sounds like YOUR BEST FRIEND. The action was not put to the committee because that would make it POLITICAL and if you haven't figured that out you really ARE STUPID."
The Reszka's bird-dogging of Collins has taken its toll on Collins and the Town, whose reputation as a friendly spot has suffered from a remarkable run of bad press. Walters and Ziegler are both up for re-election; Ziegler could lose because of this mess. Mark Cuda, the new GOP Town Chairman for just a few months, has his hands full running two races into a stiff headwind.
"Hamburg is like most places - Democrats and Republicans fight but it never used to be so bad," another source said. "With this downsizing, there's just not enough people on the board now where two people can sit down and solve problems. It's widened the partisan divide and it's killing us."
UPDATE 2/8: Town of Hamburg Republican Committee Chairman Mark Cuda has resigned from his GOP leadership post.