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County Exec. Candidates Talk IDA, Experience

(Editor’s Note: This is the second of a four-part series debate between candidates for Chautauqua County Executive)

Discussion of leadership among the candidates for Chautauqua County executive soon turned to a discussion of the incumbent’s oversight of the county’s industrial development agency during a recent debate held by The Post-Journal and The Observer.

Though Democratic challenger Richard Morrisroe has never served as an elected official, his role as Dunkirk’s city attorney has positioned him to work across city departments as well as with the city’s reconstituted industrial development agency. That experience, he said, would also position him well to oversee the county’s agency.

“IDAs were formed to create jobs,” Morrisroe said. “Our IDA at the county level has stemmed some bleeding and kept some companies going. But job creation is an issue. That’s the one knock we have is job creation. … We’ve got to revisit how we do that because there’s not a lot of jobs going forward.”

He credited his opponent, Republican incumbent PJ Wendel, for pursuing and promoting Chautauqua County’s candidacy in receiving an Amazon regional distribution center after such development in Grand Island fell apart. But, Morrisroe questioned how sustainable that project could be.

“How much of that factory is going to be automated in two years, five years, 10 years?” Morrisroe asked. “Usually we’re doing a 10-15 year pilot. They can tell you, ‘Oh, we’re going to have 1,000 jobs,’ but how many of those jobs are going to be robots? That’s not (Wendel’s) fault or my fault, that’s just the world we live in in 2020. All that has to be addressed and revisited in terms of the metrics and in terms of the tools we use to determine what we should pursue.”

“I don’t know how discussing the IDA speaks to Mr. Morrisroe’s leadership,” responded Wendel, who spent eight years as a county legislator prior to his appointment as interim county executive last December.

“That’s eight years of knowledge of how this process goes through and being part of the budget process and comments that were made as to what we want and what Mr. Morrisroe would do when he comes in are things that we already do in county government and things that already work,” Wendel said. “We need to make sure we are all working together. That’s the leadership that we all have. You’ve got to bring people together that have very strong opinions and very strong values in making sure we’re all working together. We asked about leadership and I don’t think that’s the question that was answered.”

Wendel said leadership has always been an innate quality, something he believes he has proven in the county Legislature, of which he served as chairman, as an educator and administrator and as an emergency medical technician.

“You talk about leadership and you roll into someone’s house and they’re not breathing and someone’s screaming ‘Help him, help him,’ that’s leadership,” he said. “You have to take that right then and there, you have to take it and you have to work. If you roll up to a house and there’s flames coming out and people are screaming, you have to make a decision, you have to take the lead.”

Others have recognized his leadership as well, he noted, as evidenced by his unanimous appointment to serve as interim county executive last December.

“You don’t appoint somebody that comes off the street, you don’t appoint somebody just to appoint somebody,” Wendel said. “You appoint somebody based on their skill set and what they’re able to accomplish and to lead the county and that’s exactly what was done unanimously from both sides of the aisle, the first time it was done. I take that into consideration. My leadership skills were very evident through all my colleagues in the legislature.”

“This is an elected position,” Morrisroe rebutted. “You were elected by your peers because you had a relationship with them and were with them for the last several years and by your party. And that’s fine because that’s what the law says. Ultimately it’s the people who have to decide. This election decides who is more qualified.”

In addition to serving as Dunkirk’s city attorney, Morrisroe also is a private practice lawyer and has served as a legislative aid in Erie County. He also ran a small non-profit. Those experiences, he noted, have prepared him for serving as the county’s leader.

“Throughout my life I’ve been in people businesses,” he said. “Throughout my entire life, I’ve been front-line in dealing with businesses. I’ve had to manage people.”

Morrisroe also brought up a labor dispute associated with the Cassadaga Wind project and was critical of Wendel calling it a “town issue” during a recent meeting with the Dunkirk Area Labor Council.

“That’s not exactly true,” he explained. “That labor issue could have been prevented because the CCIDA was part of the financing package for that pilot agreement and in that pilot agreement is a contract. It’s negotiable. We could have negotiated in and addressed those issues at the negotiating table before the project started. Yes, the towns’ and villages’ planning board and zoning boards do the citing, but right now all those projects go through the IDA for some level of tax abatement.”

He added, “As county executive, I have a say and I sit at that table with the leadership of the IDA, who I chose to see what goes into that contract. This job calls for more than the experience than he has. I’ve had broader experience and I have more relevant experience in the executive branch and that’s why I’m running.”

Wendel, however, explained that the wind project had been completed under George Borrello’s tenure as county executive and that the IDA had not ever been involved in contracted labor requirements.

“The IDA issues a pilot program, but it does not deal with the labor of that program that factually is between the towns, the contract of the contractors, those who contract with the group coming in and quite frankly as we’ve seen, we have made adjustments,” Wendel said. “We have a moratorium now on wind farms but the pilot programs again have never negotiated part of labor.”

Still, Morrisroe maintained that change would be necessary and, when asked, said he would not necessarily keep current department heads should he be elected — that includes IDA leader Mark Geise.

“My approach at this point is there will be open interviews for all department heads,” he said. “Whoever is in that position has the freedom to compete and interview against whoever else puts their hat in the ring for those positions.”

He added, “I have dealt with Mr. Geise, I like Mr. Geise, I have dealt with Rich Dixon, I don’t know necessarily that I’d keep them. I don’t know, but I would give them a shot and the benefit of the doubt and have them compete. Just as we’re competing for this position, I think all my department heads should have to compete.”

“The first thing in leadership is you have to trust those who work with you and I think if you’re willing to say that you don’t trust the department heads that are there, then the people who are coming in that have to listen to you as a leader is, in my opinion in what I’ve learned in high level leadership, is a failure of leadership,” Wendel responded. “You have to put your faith and trust into those who you put in those positions and who are there. We’ve been doing that constantly in the evaluation I’ve had as we’ve been going and there are some changes that are going to be made the first of the year should I be elected. It’s been a process, but we are doing things appropriately.”

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