CHEEKTOWAGA – Two factions of the Cheektowaga Democratic Party are going door-to-door soliciting signatures for the slate of candidates they think would be best to serve their interests for the next four years and if a trio led by former councilmember James Rogowski collects enough signatures, Democrats could see a primary challenge for the offices of supervisor, town clerk, and highway superintendent.
One group is walking for the endorsed Democrats led by incumbent Supervisor Diane Benczkowski. The other group is walking for James Rogowski and two politicos known to the local Democratic party, but are not really household names.
Cheektowaga Chronicle met up with Ms. Benczkowski’s presumptive challenger while he was walking door-to-door in South Cheektowaga Wednesday afternoon.
“I’m not willing to commit to running for supervisor yet, but myself and others are going door-to-door and we’re listening to the people of the Town of Cheektowaga and seeing if Jim Rogowski should be the leader of the town,” he said.
His group is circulating petitions to force a primary challenge for the office of supervisor, clerk, and highway superintendent. He is listed alongside with clerk candidate Margaret “Margie” Brezowski and highway superintendent candidate Dean “Dino” Szymkowiak.
“We’re in an exploratory phase walking door-to-door, and in our state law, we have to get signatures to get on the ballot. If I decide to run, we’re going to have the signatures ready to go. I have been able to collect a few hundred on my own not to mention the 20 or 30 other people walking for me, Margie, and Dino,” Mr. Rogowski added.
Ms. Brezowski has been deputy town clerk to Vicki Dankowski for around two years according to Mr. Rogowski.
“She’s a hard-working young lady,” he said. “She’s an idealist that will be able to build upon the good [current Town Clerk] Vicki Dankowski has built up and make it even better.”
She would faceoff with Kim Burst, one of Ms. Benczkowski’s assistants, if the petition drive is successful. Ms. Dankowski is retiring following her forty plus year career with the town.
The race for town clerk should be relatively tame compared to the potentially venomous campaigns for the offices of supervisor and highway superintendent. The four current candidates; incumbent Ms. Benczkowski and Mr. Rogowski for town supervisor; and incumbent Mark Wegner and Mr. Szymkowiak for highway superintendent; all can become scrappy and real fighters when backed into a corner.
Mr. Szymkowiak is president of the Town of Cheektowaga Employees Association – the town’s largest labor union.
“Dino is upset because the town has spent $700,000 on outside attorney fees to fight the unions. Hiring high priced union-busting attorneys from Phillips Lytle is not the answer to a working relationship with our labor unions. If there’s a grievance from the union, then we need to sit down and talk with them. By the way, the unions have won 98% of their grievances because the town was in the wrong and the supervisor was too stubborn to admit fault,” Mr. Rogowski said.
Operations in the town’s law office have changed over time after Lancaster attorney John Dudziak was appointed to the job by the town board in December of 2017 following the departure of longtime attorney Kevin Schenk. To be more efficient, Mr. Dudziak has said that he has outsourced more of the complicated issues to outside attorneys who are experts in their field of legal practice.
Ms. Benczkowski says the outsourcing of legal services for labor relations is a continuation of how the office was run under Mr. Schenk. She also said the law office has saved a little over $100,000 a year after restructuring personnel when Mr. Dudziak came onboard.
“We had a fulltime deputy town attorney who was Jeff Whiting. Then we had two part-time prosecutors, and some months they only came in once a month. They were paid $20,000 each a year,” Ms. Benczkowski said.
She said they also found savings with the retirement of a law clerk and the fact Mr. Dudziak has taken over a bulk of the prosecutor’s workload and shares work with another attorney on the town’s payroll. She helps to prosecute cases and does some deputy work as well.
Mr. Rogowski will take on his longtime colleague in government Ms. Benczkowski.
“This election is about the people of our town and how the current supervisor keeps cutting services to our seniors, veterans, families, and the youth of our town,” he says. “Funding for the Youth and Recreation programs is cut every year, funding for our senior citizens is cut every year, funding for our veterans is cut every year – that’s unheard of – these people have sacrificed their lives to protect our country and then you’re going to say to them, sorry, but we’re cutting your budget this year. That’s sad.”
He tells Cheektowaga Chronicle that he “feels confident” in his support.
“It’s amazing, the support that I’m getting from the senior citizens, younger people, people with families who are saying ‘Jim we want you, we want to take Cheektowaga back,’ and that’s a good feeling that you get when you walk door-to-door and meet with the residents,” he added.
One of the topics Mr. Rogowski is talking about while going door-to-door is the lack of competition for internet and television service in town.
“The people who I’m talking with want that change but the only way they’re going to see that change is if the cell phone companies build out their 5G networks. We need to work with everyone involved, the residents, and the cell phone companies to build out their 5G networks,” he said. “The 5G networks will put Cheektowaga on the map not only for TV but for internet access. It will bring IT companies into town and it will create real jobs for people to go to work. It’s called economic development.”
He says that the topic of his recent legal issues has been brought up occasionally. Mr. Rogowski pleaded guilty to Attempted Criminal Contempt, a misdemeanor; because he violated a court order that said he could not have contact with his wife following a domestic disturbance at his Messer Avenue home as the couple continued to live together while seeking a divorce. Last November, he was sentenced to 1-year probation as part of a plea deal with the Erie County District Attorney’s Office.
“I take responsibility for what I did. I told my wife that I loved her at an intersection. I was wrong to do that under the court order and I take reasonability for that and I’m paying for what I’ve done,” he said.
Ms. Benczkowski said in a recent Buffalo News article that she would make the issue apart of her campaign.
“What bothers me the most is his total disrespect of the law in defying the judge’s restraining order his wife had taken out against him,” she said. “I will be taking a very strong stand against domestic violence offenders during my campaign.”
Mr. Rogowski is now on the defensive.
“I don’t feel that’s a right and just statement and if she’s going to be hard on domestic violence then let me tell her one thing – you’re running for the wrong office. The office you should run for is judge or district attorney because that’s where you would be able to take a strong stance against domestic violence,” he said. “This campaign is not about my marriage and Diane is using my marital issues to hide her own shortcomings as the Chief Executive Officer of the Town of Cheektowaga. The campaign I’m looking at is a campaign of who’s going to be the better leader for this town. It’s about who’s going to take care of the small things and take responsibility when things don’t go right and then uses other board members as scapegoats. There are no scapegoats with Jim Rogowski. I’m very black and white.”
Cheektowaga Chronicle reached out to Ms. Benczkowski seeking a rebuttal to Mr. Rogowski’s quotes in our article and she provided us with this statement:
I love this town and value the people that call it home. I was raised here, I made a life with my husband here and I raised my three beautiful daughters in Cheektowaga. This has been the driving force behind my public service from school board to town board to now town supervisor.
Cheektowaga is much bigger than one person. I go to work every day thinking about my neighbors, the young family that just moved into town or the senior that is struggling to put food on the table. My passion is about the people of our town, but I also need to be mindful of the hardships that many of our residents are facing when we tax them out of their homes.
We have already been able to accomplish so much during my tenure: we have agreed to new contracts with each of the five town employee unions; residents have more say and input in what programs and services are funded through the creation of a citizens budget advisory committee and youth advisory council; new public-private partnerships are underway and we are working on opening a satellite Boys and Girls Club at the Alexander Center; we have brought in record grant monies of over $20 million reducing the burden on our taxpayers and bringing our hard-earned tax dollars back from Albany; we have consistently stayed under the property tax cap and residential properties were not assessed last year and there’s no plan to reassess them this year; and new life is returning to our neighborhoods with the number of vacant/zombie properties going down by nearly 50%.
I have constantly tried to make Cheektowaga the best that it can be. I’m running for another term because I believe we have made a lot of progress and we should continue moving in this right direction. I look forward to talking about all the positive things happening here in Cheektowaga with the residents and earning their support for another term.
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