Monroe County Democrats have struggled to win countywide seats in recent years. But Adam Bello, the new county clerk, may be the party’s next great hope.
County Clerk Adam Bello: A Democrat in a high-profile county position.
In Monroe County, the clerk’s office has served as a stepping stone to higher office, particularly the county exec’s seat; Dinolfo and her predecessor, Maggie Brooks, followed that path. Under state law, New York’s governor appoints a replacement when a county clerk’s position becomes vacant, and in March, Governor Andrew Cuomo appointed Bello to succeed Republican Cheryl Dinolfo, the new county executive.
Bello has been pegged as an up-and-comer in the party for a while. He spent close to a decade working government and political staff jobs: he was an aide to state Assembly member Joe Morelle, an administrator for Monroe County District Attorney Sandra Doorley (before she became a Republican), and executive director of the Monroe County Democratic Committee. His work as Irondequoit supervisor – particularly his focus on ousting the less-than-successful owner of Medley Centre – boosted his profile.
And he’s now in a position where he could be a formidable county exec candidate in 2019, a possibility some Democrats have floated but which Bello says he hasn’t considered. First, however, he has to win the county clerk’s seat in 2016; his appointment is good only through the end of the year. He faces a challenge from Republican Cheryl Rozzi, the Greece town clerk and former clerk of the County Legislature.
The GOP will fight hard to get the office back, and it has the better track record in county elections. County Democrats have struggled in recent years with fund-raising and rifts between some key members; the party probably won’t be an obstacle to Bello, but it may not have the capacity to provide a lot of support.
Three months into the clerk’s job, Bello has begun efforts to help local governments rein in zombie properties, to reopen a downtown Department of Motor Vehicles office, and to improve the department’s use of technology. The clerk’s position already gives him countywide visibility and a platform for talking about county issues, and if he stays in office for a few years, he’ll get more public exposure. That could be an important benefit should he seek higher office at some point.
Republicans, of course, don’t want that. The moment Bello was appointed, the GOP went into attack mode. County Republican Party Chair Bill Reilich said that Bello was abandoning the Irondequoit residents who just reelected him as supervisor. (Bello had run unopposed). He also said he hoped Bello wasn’t using the clerk’s office as “a stepping stone for county executive” – an interesting line of attack from Reilich, since Dinolfo and Brooks had made that jump.
Reilich’s initial swipe at Bello backfired due to his ill-conceived claim that a wildly popular Irondequoit development, I-Square, was struggling. I-Square’s developers, Mike and Wendy Nolan, vigorously protested the claim, and their many supporters sided with them. The result was that Reilich had sparked a clumsy scandal of his own, one that led Dinolfo to sack one of her deputies and caused four Monroe County Industrial Development Agency board members to quit in protest over the scandal.
“It was just such raw politics injecting itself into an economic development project that was popular in town; it was successful in town,” Bello said in a recent City interview. “That's why you had this immediate reaction from residents and taxpayers.”
Bello and his staff also recently discovered that a week after Bello took office, the Dinolfo administration started funding three auditor positions out of the clerk’s budget. The auditors in question do work related to the clerk’s office, but previously their positions were funded through the finance department. Bello and his staff have been talking with county finance officials about the matter, which Bello says could impact his ability to fill vacant customer service positions.
County Finance Director Robert Franklin says that the change was part of a broader effort to make sure that staff members are budgeted under the departments where they actually do their work. That effort started in 2014, he says.
Some Democrats view the budget change as politically motivated, but in the interview, Bello stopped short of that.
“I question the timing of it,” he said.
Bello’s a young guy, so
he’s still got quite a few years left in his political career. He’s straightforward and personable. He’s able to steer conversations back to his message, but he’s not afraid to talk in detail about issues or policies.
He’s also developed a knack for seizing on issues that resonate with people. In Irondequoit, he and the Town Board developed laws, including a registration requirement, meant to address vacant and abandoned properties, particularly those tied up in the foreclosure process.
These zombie properties, as they’re popularly called, are a high-profile, complicated problem. Bello said he took the clerk appointment because he saw an opportunity to use the office to work on the issue, which is important to him. His first action as county clerk was to convene a task force to examine the issue and recommend solutions for local, county, and state governments. It’s supposed to issue a report in the fall.
Some critics initially dismissed the effort as pointless, since the clerk’s office can’t do anything about the troubled properties. But Bello said the task force is already yielding results.
“After some of our task force members attended a meeting of other local officials – code enforcement officials, elected officials – relative to vacant properties, it became clear to the task force members that providing certain pieces of information that our office had would be helpful,” he said.
The result: the clerk’s office is now providing local governments with a monthly list of the foreclosure notices it receives. And it’s also going to start providing foreclosure judgments to communities, so officials know who is legally responsible for upkeep of foreclosed properties.
Bello is also reviving the issue of a downtown DMV office, which the past few Democratic county clerk candidates have proposed. He and his staff are currently evaluating how they can expand DMV services in the city, he said.
“Right now, city residents are served with a mobile unit that sets up at City Place three days a week, and then it's also at the County Parks Department two days a week,” Bello said. “They're not open like our other DMV’s for the full day.”
He and his staff are also pursuing an e-filing system for the clerk’s office. The idea is to make filing different documents – especially legal papers – more convenient and efficient, and to cut down on lines at the office, he said.
The county administration’s changes
to the clerk’s office budget may not have been truly political, given Franklin’s explanation that similar changes previously happened in other departments. But it is an election year, and since the Republican administration controls the flow of money to the Democrat-run clerk’s office, the move at least looked suspicious.
Bello said that nobody from the administration told him about the change, or why it was necessary at that particular time. It’s a departure from the arrangement Dinolfo and Brooks had as clerk, and from the 2016 budget the County Legislature approved last year, he said.
The changes, he argued, should have been made in the context of the 2017 budget process, which is already underway.
“There's a time and a place for politics,” he said. “There's going to be an election; let's not be naive about that. There's an election that's going to be in the fall. That's months away. But there should never be a decision that impacts the operation of the government simply because of a political consideration. That should never be the case. We didn't do it in Irondequoit, I'm not doing it here in the clerk's office, and my expectation is they wouldn't do that across the hallway."
And speaking of the election and political considerations, Bello said he’s focused entirely on the clerk’s office.
“I took this appointment at some considerable risk,” he said. “I'd just won a two-year term in Irondequoit and, based on the issues that were really important to me that I was trying to work on in the Town of Irondequoit, I felt like the county clerk's office was a very good position to be able to attack those issues in a better way.”