BUFFALO, NY --The new Chairperson of the Erie County Legislature has hired at least two staffers with deep political ties.
When Democrat Barbara Miller-Williams became chairperson last Thursday, she was put in power by a bi-partisan group calling itself the "reform coalition." Like many of her predecessors, she cleaned house, bringing some of his or her own staff. But in this case, critics are calling her hires pure patronage. One legislator considers one of the new staffers a "political payoff."
One of those hires is Sheila Meegan, a town of West Seneca Board Member with political ties. The other is Sandra Rosenswie, who is the Chairperson of Erie County's Independence Party. Coincidentally, most of the legislators, including the new chairperson, ran as the Independence Party's candidate last November.
"The notion that they have hired a sitting party boss, while she is currently in her capacity as the party chairperson, is a blatant use of government resources to pay off political debt," said Democratic Majority Leader Maria Whyte, who also received the Independence Party endorsement. "And that seems wholly inappropriate to me."
According to the county personnel department, Rosenswie with make about $35,000 annually. Meegan will be part time and make about $12,000 a year.
Since Friday, 2 On Your Side has attempted to interview Miller-Williams about the new staff. We finally reached her by phone Monday morning. She promised to call us back for an interview Monday afternoon, but never called. When we called her, she told us she no longer would be available for an interview Monday. She instead promised us an interview Tuesday morning.
Hours after becoming Chairperson, Miller Williams pledged to hire qualified candidates for the legislative staff.
"We're going to make sure that we have individuals in place that can fulfill the duties and the requirements of the Erie County Leg," Miller-Williams said. "And those individuals certainly have the expertise and the skills to do that."
Legislator Daniel Kozub (D-Lackawanna) defended the hiring of Rosenswie.
"She was (Former) Legislator Cindy Locklear's aid, so she does have experience up here," Kozub said. "Once again that's the chairwoman's prerogative if that's who she feels she needs to hire."
Kozub then acknowledged that Rosenswie endorsed him in the last election.
All six member of the legislature's Republican Caucus, including Minority Leader John Mills, are part of the Reform Coalition that put Miller-Williams in power.
"Is it right to have someone of political influence, like Rosenswie, who is now working for the county after supporting some of the candidates that ran," 2 on Your Side's Josh Boose asked Erie County Legislator Lynne Dixon.
"She, the independence party locally, did support a lot of people on the democrat side of the aisle," said Dixon. "But I welcome anyone who is willing to work in a bipartisan, tri-partisan manner."
"For the people that say already this is patronage, this is supposed to be reform. What do you say to the naysayers out there that say this doesn't look right?" Boose asked.
"Well, I would say, give us time," replied Dixon.
"What about people that say this is just political payback to a party boss?" Boose asked Erie County Legislator Kevin Hardwick.
"I'm certain from the fact she is the chairman of a local minor party is icing on the cake for them," said Hardwick. "That's probably a factor in the hiring but that doesn't mean she's not qualified to do the job."
"Is there really actual reform in the legislature if the same old political habits of the past keep occurring? " 2 On Your Side's Aaron Saykin asked legislatoe John Mills.
"I don't think there's going to be the same old political past around here," said Mills. "I think it's more agenda-driven as far as reform for the taxpayers of Erie County. I think that's what you're going to see."
"Do you think the staff changes have been reform?" Saykin asked.
"I think in some cases, it has been reform, yes. In other cases, maybe not so much", said Mills.
2 On Your Side offered Meegan and Rosenswie an opportunity to comment on the story, but each declined.
Miller-Williams was not available for comment Monday. She has agreed to sit down with 2 On Your Side for an interview on Tuesday morning.