CHEEKTOWAGA – A former Cheektowaga councilmember convicted of a misdemeanor in 2014, was appointed to a paid position on the town’s Planning Board Tuesday night and now questions of transparency regarding his appointment are being raised.
Charlie Markel was stripped of his office in 2014 after he pleaded guilty to unlawfully collecting unemployment while still receiving a salary from the Town of Cheektowaga for his duties as a town councilmember. He made full restitution and served a one-year conditional discharge.
The town council appointed Mr. Markel to the vacant $3,491 a year position at the regular town board meeting Tuesday night. The vote to name the former councilmember was by a 4-2 margin with Councilmembers James Rogowski and Gerald Kaminski voting no. Councilmember Christine Adamczyk was excused from the meeting because she was sick according to Supervisor Diane Benczkowski.
Councilmember James Rogowski questions the transparency of the appointment telling Cheektowaga Chronicle that, “The job wasn’t posted.”
“There were two applicants,” said Mr. Rogowski. “The other applicant, Keven Schenk, was our town attorney and oversaw zoning and planning, and understands the details that need to be done not only on the board but also in a legal perspective.”
Mr. Rogowski showed Cheektowaga Chronicle a letter Mr. Schenk sent the town board on January 3rd stating his intentions to serve on the board.
During the board’s afternoon work session, the town’s Coordinator of Employee Relations, Karen Marchese, said the letter never reached her desk.
“I didn’t receive those applications, I do apologize, so I was unaware that anyone else applied,” Ms. Marchese told the board when Mr. Kaminski questioned her.
The seat in question has sat empty for a year according to the town. Mr. Rogowski, who is the Chairman of the town’s Planning and Zoning Committee, says he first learned that Mr. Markel was interested in the position when he received the agenda for Tuesday’s meeting on Friday, January 5th.
“I never received a letter from Charlie asking to be on the Planning Board nor have I received a phone call from him asking to be on the board. The only person I received the letter from was Kevin Schenk,” added Mr. Rogowski.
The resolution to appoint Mr. Markel was brought to the floor by Councilmember Linda Hammer and Co-sponsored by Supervisor Diane Benczkowski.
Ms. Benczkowski confirms to Cheektowaga Chronicle that a vacancy notice for the position was never posted for the public’s consideration and was surprised to see that Mr. Rogowski is now taking offense to it.
“It never was (a problem) for 13-years since Mr. Rogowski has been on (the board). He knows the process – what did he say about the process,” asked Ms. Benczkowski.
When pressed if under her leadership the town will change the way paid positions are made available to the public, Ms. Benczkowski said she’d look into it.
“I don’t understand why that is such a big issue if we have a qualified candidate. I don’t understand why, (the town board) didn’t do that before – there must have been a reason.”
She says the job isn’t a civil service position and that many people are asked to serve on citizen’s committees in other towns merely because they’re involved in the community.
“The town knows their experience, that’s how they’re asked. I know a friend of mine was asked to be on the Minority Women’s Council in the Town of Amherst just from being out there in the community,” added Ms. Benczkowski.
She also explained how the town chose her for a Planning Board appointment because of her background in real estate. “I was on the planning board for six months,” said Ms. Benczkowski. “I was asked to be on it.”
“You ran on open and transparency,” Cheektowaga Chronicle said. “This is a paid position – taxpayer money – shouldn’t that be advertised to the taxpayers?”
“Open and transparent for me is knowing what’s going on when we’re making decisions and what I’m doing as far as how I’m running these meetings transparently – not meeting up in a little conference room for work sessions. To me that’s transparency,” said Ms. Benczkowski.
She also said she changed the way the town board goes into executive session. “We specifically state the reason – and it’s a legal reason – before it never was,” added Ms. Benczkowski.
Ms. Hammer sits on the town’s Traffic Safety Commission. She says they have been without a secretary for more than a year. That position is paid a stipend according to Ms. Hammer. Its vacancy was posted by the supervisor on the town’s Facebook page January 4th. As of Tuesday night, the posting is absent from the town’s website.
She agrees with the supervisor that jobs for citizen’s committees don’t need to be posted to the public if you can find a qualified candidate through other means.
“When Charlie Markel came forward and expressed an interest in this position, we know he has the experience for the planning board, so we didn’t see any reason to say ‘no, we’re not interested,'” added Ms. Hammer.
Freshman Councilmember Brian Nowak also ran on a platform of transparency and voted in favor of the appointment.
“I did get a letter about Schenk a week ago. I don’t know the man personally. I’ve had a chance to meet Charlie. He was a former councilmember, and my view is that he would have a more holistic sense about town planning being a former member of the town council.”
When questioned by Cheektowaga Chronicle specifically about paid positions being posted, Mr. Nowak said, “I would like to see some more transparency, but I would also like to speak with my fellow board members before I speak any further on that to see what their practices have been historically and what their expectations and thoughts are on that as well.”
Councilmember Gerald Kaminski was the second no vote on the appointment.
“I think it’s insulting to the taxpayers,” said Mr. Kaminski. “He took money illegally from every taxpayer, not only in Cheektowaga but in the State of New York and that’s all I’m going to say about it.”