Rochester's current City Council is not a group of introverts. Whereas a few previous Councils had one or two members who seemed barely engaged — indeed, barely coherent at times — this nine-member body can be downright rowdy behind semi-closed doors.
Some observers say that this is one of the better Councils that the City of Rochester has had. A particular strength is that in their day jobs, many members specialize in fields that are especially useful to a city grappling with serious crime, housing, and financial issues.
If the issue is finances, for example, you'd probably look to Council member Carolee Conklin, who is the city's former deputy treasurer. If it's technology, you might turn to Council member Dana Miller, who spent 34 years at Xerox in management and technical positions, including software development.
Conklin and Miller are two of the five at-large Council members up for re-election this year. The others are Jackie Ortiz, Matt Haag, and Loretta Scott. They are being challenged in a Democratic primary by the Rev. Marlowe Washington, pastor of Christ Community Church of Rochester; local business people Anthony Giordano and Lisa Jacques; and Ann Lewis, a former special education teacher in the Rochester school district. The top five vote-getters in the September 10 primary win and go on to face Green Party candidates Andrew Langdon, David Atias, and Dorothy Paige in November's general election.
(All registered voters in the city can vote for five candidates in this election; the four district council seats will be on the ballot two years from now.)
Giordano, Lewis, and Jacques lack name-recognition and will find it hard to be competitive. Washington is better known and could make a good showing in the primary.
But the incumbents are better qualified and have the experience both in government and in their professional lives that will be important and useful to Rochester in a time of declining resources but great need.
If you're not plugged into the workings of city government, it's hard to evaluate members of Council. Most legislation originates from the mayor's office, so few Council members have signature accomplishments to point to.
The Council members themselves say that one of the main ways you should grade them is by their impact on legislation — the questions they ask, the changes they push for. Member Matt Haag, for example, was a longtime holdout on the transit center. He wouldn't vote for it until the transportation authority took greater responsibility for security in and around the station — which the authority eventually agreed to do.
Haag earns high marks from people inside city government. They say he's one of the most thoughtful, engaged Council members, does his homework, and has a real impact on legislation. Haag is also a regular presence at neighborhood meetings around the city.
Haag co-piloted the process that resulted in a citywide moratorium on hydraulic fracturing — an initiative led by Council member Loretta Scott — and took part in the overhaul of the way complaints against the police are handled. Many activists are still unhappy with the process, wanting a completely independent review board. But it's indisputable that the system has improved. People pursuing complaints against the police are now assigned an advocate to help them through the process.
Haag also made the Rochester Housing Authority aware that its policies didn't include protections for transgender people. Those protections are now in place.
Council Vice President Miller is thoughtful and knowledgeable about the operation of the city, its history, and its challenges. At times he seems a bit isolated on Council, but he was able to convince enough members to support him for the vice presidency — ousting a reluctant Elaine Spaull.
Some people accuse Miller of serial equivocation, but others say it would be a mistake to confuse Miller's calm, deliberate manner and approach for politics or ambivalence. Miller's supporters say he is a quiet visionary and that Brooks Landing in the 19th Ward — which includes student housing, stores, and a hotel — would've never happened without Miller's vision and persistence. The project was a decade in the making.
Miller formed an ad hoc committee that brought wireless to City Hall. It's spotty now, but the goal is to have it throughout the building. And he has been trying to convince national chains to invest in the city's depressed neighborhoods. Most of the businesses in these corridors are small stores like groceries and barbershops, and they aren't sufficient to build a thriving neighborhood.
Young and ebullient, Ortiz is easy to like. It's taken awhile for her to find her footing on Council, though, and Ortiz admits to being pulled between the demands of Council and her business — she owns a State Farm agency on Alexander Street.
At-large seats are tricky, too, because without a defined territory, Council members have to set their own priorities, and inexperienced representatives can be overwhelmed.
Ortiz has been outspoken on the subjects of the city's sale of tax liens and on land banks — a newly created entity that will help the city dispose of vacant and abandoned property. Sources say she also pokes the administration on neighborhood issues.
Despite a slow start, Ortiz seems to have found her sea legs. If we think of her first four years as an investment, we should expect to see an accomplished second term.
Scott doesn't lack institutional knowledge, having worked for the City of Rochester for 30 years, including serving as commissioner of the then Department of Parks, Recreation, and Human Services. Institutional knowledge is critical to this Council, insiders say, because the body is still feeling the loss of longtime veteran members several years ago.
Scott led the effort to get Council to pass a citywide hydrofracking moratorium at a time when the issue didn't seem to be on the administration's radar.
The criticism heard most about Scott is that she's not out in the community enough. But she frequently questions the administration on parks and recreation issues, which makes sense given her background. And she was part of the important effort to increase diversity in the police and fire departments, visiting churches in the black community to spread the word about job opportunities in those fields.
Scott also instituted a requirement to identify the number of jobs created for every proposal for capital project funding that comes to Council.
Conklin is the personification of institutional knowledge. She knows where the bodies are buried, and she could draw you a detailed map. She's the city's former deputy treasurer, former Monroe County deputy clerk, and former city clerk.
Everything this publication wrote in its 2003 endorsement of Conklin remains true: "bright, experienced, innovative, effective, blunt, and colorful. Conklin knows the city as well as anyone in government. She does her homework, almost always knows what she's talking about, and isn't afraid to say what she thinks."
Example: When former Mayor Bob Duffy insisted that his Zero Tolerance police crackdown was good for the city, Conklin made sure that the audience at the Council meeting knew that the program was also good for police pensions.
Conklin's colleagues say she can't be beat when it comes to legacy, history, and understanding of the city's operations, particularly finances.
Conklin has historically been a committed critic of the city school district — some would say she's gone overboard in that regard — but she surprised everyone this year when she voted in favor of the district's budget for the first time in almost a decade. She said she wanted to support what she sees as signs of hope in the district, including recent hires made by Superintendent Bolgen Vargas.
Ann Lewis asked that questions be e-mailed to her, but she did not respond to them. In her campaign literature, Lewis says she wants to establish Rochester "as the hub of green technology," to provide family literacy activities for city residents, and to work with business and labor to provide more vocational internships for youth.
Anthony Giordano has done little campaigning, but his literature contains generally broad proposals like putting more police on the streets and creating a year-round jobs program for youth. Giordano is a recurrent candidate for elected office in Rochester, and although well-intentioned, he lacks the knowledge required to serve.
The Rev. Marlowe Washington says the current Council isn't doing enough to help the city through its extended transition from a manufacturing-based economy to whatever comes next. Too many of the city's poor are being left behind, he says.
Washington proposes creating zones of distressed neighborhoods and singling them out for intense public-private investment — a souped-up version, essentially, of the city's Focused Investment program. FIS does not address the systemic causes of poverty, Washington says.
He also favors a return to neighborhood police precincts.
Washington clearly has a following in this community, but didn't make a strong enough case to unseat the incumbents.
Lisa Jacques is focused foremost on the city's small businesses. She says city government is overly punitive of small business, while being overly solicitous of national chains on such issues as hours of operation and permitted inventory. City officials rebut those accusations, but acknowledge that the perception exists.
Jacques has also been a critic of the public money that goes to developers of private projects. She has been particularly critical of the sale of Midtown Tower to a Buckingham Properties-Morgan Management partnership for $2. Buckingham-Morgan plans to redevelop the tower for housing and commercial use.
Jacques works hard advocating for small business, but her tone is sometimes overly harsh. It's not clear she'd be able to work cooperatively with other Council members.
Essays by each of the candidates for City Council – with the exception of Ann Lewis and Anthony Giordano, who failed to submit one – are on our website, rochestercitynewspaper.com.