A Conversation with Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz (S3E03)

Meet the county executive that has had the toughest year of maybe anyone in government. The people of Buffalo, NY lived through a tragic racist shooting. Then they were hit with a once in a generation snowstorm. Mark Poloncarz talks about how to manage two of the worst tragedies in the US. And being Buffalo, we talked wings.



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Mark Poloncarz: I’ve always been of the opinion that when you take these jobs, not through the ribbon cuttings, you take them for the responsibility of creating a better community. Government is not a business. It should not be run like one. There are certain aspects of a business that will never take on the operations that government does, like homeland security and emergency services or child protective services.  There’s no profit to be made in those. But you have a responsibility to the greater community to ensure that we do all that we can to protect the safety of our constituents and our residents. That’s the number one responsibility of someone in government. If you ignore your mistakes, you’re just going to fail. And in these roles, if you fail, then you failed the greater community. Good government is finding ways to deliver the services to the public better and more efficiently. Our forefathers and mothers created our park system so they can enjoy them and we can enjoy them while now we have to invest in them now so that not only can we enjoy them, but people 50, 60 years from now who don’t know who I was will still be able to enjoy those parks because of the investments we did today.

David Martin: Welcome to The Good Government Show. I’m Dave Martin. And I’m about to have a conversation with maybe the county executive who had the toughest job in America. From the spring of 2022 through the winter of 2023, and that’s Mark Poloncarz of Erie County, New York. And that’s the Buffalo area. First, his community was rocked by a mass shooting.

A racist gunman targeted a local grocery store in an African-American neighborhood. His plan was to kill as many black people as he could. He killed ten and injured three in a hail of bullets before he was apprehended by police. Six months later, the gunman pleaded guilty to his hate crime. But that community is still reeling from that horrible incident.

Then in December, it snowed. Not just snow because buffalo is used to snow. This was different. They called it a once in a generation snowstorm. But it wasn’t just snow. It was snow. It was rain. It was hurricane force winds. It was freezing temperatures. On one day, a record two feet of snow fell. People were trapped. Some people died in their cars.

Rescue workers couldn’t get to people who needed help. And all 46 deaths were attributed to the blizzard. So how do you manage a county and how do you provide leadership in a time of crisis and not just any crisis? These types of events are events that in some ways you just can’t plan for. And that’s what we talk to Mark volunteers about.

Well, you know that. And since we’re talking about Buffalo, we had to break up chicken wings. So join me and my conversation with Mark calling cards. That’s coming up right after the break.

The good government show is sponsored by NACO. That’s the National Association of Counties. County Government is actually the oldest form of government in the United States, and it touches more people directly. Roads, highways, hospitals, schools, recycling law enforcement, water and sewers. In most of the country, those services are maintained by the county that’s county government. Naco is a nationwide organization that represents all 3069 counties across the U.S. Naco helps county government work better together through things like sharing best practices.

Because when county government works well, well, that’s just good government. Welcome to the Good Government show. I’m David Martin. And we are about to have a conversation with Mark Poloncarz. Mark, thank you for being with us. If you would introduce yourself, tell us where you’re from and your title.

Mark Poloncarz: It’s my pleasure to be here, David. I once again mark polling cars in the Erie County executive for New Yorkers three, three counties. But I’m New York, which includes the city of Buffalo, two or smaller cities and 25 towns. I oversee and manage a government of about 5000 people that has a $2 billion budget and is responsible for everything Health and human services to parks and libraries, you name it. We’re involved in in Erie County.

David Martin: And county executive. That title it’s it’s a it’s a big title. It’s a big job.

Mark Poloncarz:  Yeah. A lot of people are like, what is a county executive? It’s comparable to a governor. I am the person responsible for the entire government and I’m elected on a four year term and I appoint the department heads in our community. They’re commissioners and commissioners in Erie County, New York are not elected or appointed department heads. I have to deal with the legislature.

So it’s very similar to what most states have, which is a strong executive and a strong legislature. That’s the same type of thing we have in Erie County, New York.

David Martin: One of the reasons why I was very interested in talking with you is because I think it’s fair to say here is you probably had the hardest job as any county executive in America over the past year.

Mark Poloncarz: It’s been a rough year. It was a bad year. We were finishing up, of course, the COVID 19 pandemic at the beginning of 2022. Sure, we went through the micron wave. More than 3000 of my residents have died since the beginning of the COVID 19 pandemic. We’ve had significant impacts from the pandemic than we thought We were going to get a respite.

And of course, we had the horrible mass shooting on May 14th in which a white supremacists from outside our area came into town to kill as many African-Americans as he could, killed ten people at the top supermarket in Buffalo, which really isn’t that far from my house. I’ve shop there. I shot there in the past. I shop there.

It’s not a primary place. I go to, but I have in the past, I knew a couple of the people not really well, but had met them before who were killed. It was a horrible situation. And then because the supermarket was closed, it had an impact on the greater community as a result of food insecurity issues. So the county was directly involved in trying to address the food insecurity issues, as well as the mental health issues for the community.

Our community suffered is significant trauma. Even if an individual did not know somebody who was murdered, they suffered a trauma with a white supremacist coming into our community to target and kill as many African-Americans as possible. So Erie County was directly responsible for the mental health response and assisting the greater community. We got through that.

David Martin: Is there anything that you can say or do immediately that that really helps?

Mark Poloncarz: Yes, you can bring the community together. In my role, I immediately talked to a number of the pastors that are are very respected in the community. And need to sit down and say, okay, we need to come together. There was some worry that there was going to be riots like we’ve seen in other parts of the country when something racially motivated occurred.

There wasn’t the community came together to say, what do we need to do to help our people in need? And I think that’s one thing that is county executive was able to do, is to bring together a number of partners from the not only the private sector, not for profits. Yeah. The houses of worship to to address what was a just a horrible situation.

And then once we finally got through that, we’ve had a really rough winter because we had a storm in November with seven feet of snow and then we had a horrible blizzard in December that took 46 lives of county residents in many different ways. We know how to handle snow in Buffalo.

David Martin: Well, I was going to say, I mean, you this is a snow belt, right?

Mark Poloncarz: Yeah. And the problem was it wasn’t even the most snow we’ve ever received in a storm in the last few years. But the winds were hurricane force over 75 mile per hour winds on average, 50 to 65 miles per hour for 36 hours. And what was created were blinding conditions where you couldn’t see more than three or four feet.

So people got trapped in cars. Right. People got trapped in their homes. There were massive power outages due to substations freezing from not only the winds and the snow, but the extreme cold. Temperatures dropped down to the single digits. We had windchills in the -30 category and it was it was a horrible situation that we’ve gotten through as a community.

The irony is, how do.

David Martin: You manage something.

Mark Poloncarz: Like that? Well, first off, you have to have the team in place. We do. It’s not our first snowstorm. We know how to handle snowstorms. The biggest problem we dealt with in the blizzard, unlike other ones, is we could not respond at the height of it because we were sending our specialized snow rescue teams out to rescue first responders, firefighters, police officers, The EMTs that went out on calls got stuck.

They just couldn’t go anywhere because they couldn’t see where they were going. It became a situation where it was the worst case scenario you could have as a government official, because in snowstorms, previous or any other issue, we can send our first responders out. It might be difficult for them to get to where they were supposed to go, but we could do that.

This was a situation where for approximately 24 hours we couldn’t do anything. First responders were getting stuck. We were sending emergency crews out on snowmobiles. And the snowmobilers were like, I’ve never seen a situation this bad. And these are people who snowmobile for their whole life. They had no idea where they were going. It was the worst case scenario.

David Martin: As a as a county executive, as a leader, when your hands are sort of tied, how do you deal with that?

Mark Poloncarz: You have to get accurate information out to the public. That was one of our keys. We the nice thing about today with the ability to do remote video calls and the like is we were at our operations center, right? There was no media there. They couldn’t get there, but we didn’t need them there. So we could immediately put things out live and tell the public this is the situation.

We understand this is not what we want to see. All of us want to be able to respond immediately if someone’s having a heart attack. You want to be able to send an EMT crew and an ambulance out to to save them. But when the ambulance can’t get through because there’s three and a half feet of snow on the ground and they don’t know where they’re going, then you have to just find ways to to to resolve the situation.

The problem is, as we lost, as I said, 46 people in my county, some of them were because we couldn’t respond in time, Others were because they were they were in situations where we couldn’t get to like a senior who was trapped in a home that had lost power. And after three days of having no power, died from hypothermia, just horrible situations.

I thought I saw everything. Yeah, I did. The only way to describe it to someone who wasn’t there when you’re looking out a window, but it’s a whiteboard and just stare at that for more than 24 hours in a row. That’s what it was like in Buffalo during the blizzard, because it was just a wall of white due to the winds and the level of snow.

And it just shut down everything that we consider normal government other than the ability to respond and talk to people over the phone. And we had to create a whole nother system, which thankfully we had in place. And we used a specialized phone number that people who call to get information, okay, we can’t get to you with an ambulance, but we can talk to you over the phone and tell you here’s what you need to do to get through this difficult situation.

David Martin: There was some criticism about the response by the county and other county and other entities. How do you find the wherewithal to continue in the face of some serious criticism? Well, we did. And was it fair?

Mark Poloncarz: I don’t think it was fair because we handled snowstorms with even more snow before. In November, we had seven feet of snow. The blizzard was only four feet of snow. I think what was what, unfortunately for us is still only four feet of snow. We’ve had four feet of snow before. Yeah, part of the problem, this is something that happens in the south, too.

People become numb to hurricane, hurricane, hurricane. We there’s there’s no scale for blizzards. But the best way to describe it, a blizzard under the National Weather Service is 3 hours or more, a 35 mile per hour winds with less than a quarter mile visibility. That’s a blizzard. We’ve had those before. This was 70 mile per hour winds with no visibility for more than 24 hours.

So if there was a blizzard scale from 1 to 5, this probably would have been a Category five blizzard. But the problem is a lot of people, I think, in our community and even us in government, when we heard a blizzard was coming, we were like, we can handle this. We can handle blizzards. This was something no one could handle because it shut down our ability to respond.

And I will not criticize anyone, any other level government in regards to the response during that period afterwards. We worked hard to open up our community. We we spent millions and millions of dollars on independent contractors in addition to our Department of Public Works staff to open up roads, open up communities, we organized direct response where we had high lifts going out with ambulances.

So if the ambulance couldn’t get down the road, the high left would pick up the snow and just push it and get the ambulance down the road. I would note that the professionals who handled storms before were all in place. Everyone worked together. There’s always Monday morning quarterbacking that goes on. And I understand that there was a question as to whether or not I implemented a driving ban early enough.

Any other supervisor or mayor could have done it. None of them implemented a driving ban. I did. But because I’m the one who makes that decision, if you want to criticize me, that’s okay. The buck stops here. I’ll take the criticism. It’s my responsibility. And hopefully as we go along, we realize if we get another blizzard warning that not only will we say, okay, it’s maybe not the blizzard, just like we had in the past that we’re easy to handle.

It could be like in 2000, 22 of December where it was impossible to handle during the height of it. But we found a way to get through. 46 people died. But the other thing is, we’ve saved thousands of lives. The actions that we entered into through government, through our Department of Homeland Security, Department of Public Works, all of the other governments that were involved, the city of Buffalo, the towns, the state.

Everyone talks about the deaths, but we know because of the actions of many in the rescue missions that were done, we saved thousands of lives. When you have to send specialized snow rescue teams out to rescue first responders, yes, it’s it’s the worst case scenario.

David Martin: It’s got to be.

Mark Poloncarz: And it was.

David Martin: And so the days I spent a hellacious days for you.

Mark Poloncarz: It was I mean, I was at our operation center at 7:00 in the morning on the day the snow started falling, which didn’t fall till later in the day. I drove out that morning, it was like 48 degrees and raining in a very short period of time. At 830 in the morning, it started snowing when it fell below 32.

By 930, 10:00 in the morning was blizzard conditions. We basically went from 50 degrees to five degrees in a matter of hours. It was the worst case scenario you could see. I hope I never deal with that again. I certainly hope no other community deals with again. But if we have to, we’ve learned a lot from it. In addition to what we learn from previous storms.

David Martin: How do I say this? Did you enjoy the challenge?

Mark Poloncarz: It’s not so much enjoying. The challenge is reacting to said I arrived at our emergency operation.

David Martin: I mean, this is this is among the hardest things that an elected official has to deal with. You know, certainly life and death issues, community safety. Kind of the reason why you get into it in the first place. Is it how do you how do I guess how do you deal with that?

Mark Poloncarz: You just work in the moment. One of the things that we dealt with during the storm and afterwards because of the sheer issues that we were facing, was the the real position that we were not going to be able to get to everyone at any particular time at the height of the storm because of the ferocity of it and the realization among us that there were people who were going to die, that we probably could have rescued otherwise in any other situation.

But we can’t here. So it was just worked through. It worked through it worked through it. We know this is going to end eventually. We’ll be able to get out there. In the meantime, what can we do to save as many lives as possible? I’ve always been of the opinion that when you take these jobs, not through the ribbon cuttings, you take them for the responsibility of creating a better community.

I look at my my my view of government is government is not a business. It should not be run like one. There are certain aspects of a business that will never take on the operations that government does. Like Homeland security and emergency services or child protective services. There’s no profit to be made in those. But you have a responsibility to the greater community to ensure that we do all that we can to protect the safety of our constituents and our residents.

That’s the number one responsibility of someone in government. Too often people get in government because they like the perks, they like doing the ribbon cuttings, they like the happy stuff. But if you’re not willing to take the time and effort it takes to resolve these issues, the real reason we’re in government, which is to protect our residents, then you’re probably in the wrong business.

I always knew that this was a part of it and it’s not so much enjoying it, but just knowing put your head to the grindstone and just do the work and afterwards realize what you did well and where. There are things that could have been done better and learn from it.

David Martin: One of the things we try to do on this show is to share some best practices with what you’ve been through in the last year. Give some advice to other county officials or government officials. You know how to manage through some of the some of the worst crises we’ve had in the country in the last year have happened in Buffalo.

Mark Poloncarz: First off, you’ve got to really have a good staff. You will succeed or fail as an elected official, as an appointed official with the staff that surrounds you. So you have to have good staff who are trained. You do not want to be teaching people how to respond in the middle of the emergency. And for some friend of mine.

David Martin: In the police department used to say, You can’t sharpen your sword. What’s the battle history got correct.

Mark Poloncarz: And if you do not have the people who are trained to address these issues at the time it’s needed, you’re going to fail. So you have to have those people in place. I know it’s very difficult in some of the smaller communities, smaller counties, because they don’t have the staff resources. Well, then you have to build up good relationships with your state so the state can come in and help out.

The other thing is I learned a long time ago when it comes to snowstorms in our emergency operation center, there are no generals. Everyone’s a private. Okay. Everyone has has a role. But anyone’s idea could be the best idea. And there have been times in which the newest individual on the staff who’s never gone through before may come up with an idea and a recommendation that is so much better than what we’re used to.

And so you’ve got to put the hats off, take the hats off. No generals, no leaders per say. Everyone has a role in. What you end up finding out is the collaboration in the work is so much better. And sometimes there are innovative things you may not have thought of that come from someone who just looked and said, I think there’s ways of doing it.

It’s very similar to the name of your show, The Good Government Show. It’s how can we do things better for that? And and I look at it as if we as a as community leaders realize maybe you’re elected by the public, but perhaps that first year account clerk who’s working on these issues has a better idea. Go with it.

Don’t don’t worry where it came from. Because in the end, and once again, it’s about doing the best job you can for your constituents and the best ideas often are from others who may never have been in that situation before, but said instead of doing X, why don’t we do why? And sometimes why is better? So let’s do it.

David Martin: Do you have conversations? Do you meet regularly with those of your staff just for drop in and.

Mark Poloncarz: For first, I’m a full time position. I’m required to work full time based on the Erie County’s charter. So my entire time is dedicated. This I’m attorney by trading, but I don’t practice anymore. And the key for me is I have monthly meetings with department heads. I require my department heads to provide me a memo briefing at the end of every week so I know exactly what happened in their department.

And also, what’s the expectation for the upcoming week? I never want to be caught in the dark, so to speak, about something that’s going on in the department. And then after these incidences, we have after action reports in which I required the departments to provide me their report, and then we have a sit down to determine, okay, what was done right, what was done wrong, what can be done better in the future.

If you’re not communicating with the experts in the field, which are the department heads, then you’re as an elected official and in a loss position because you need to not only know what’s going on in your departments, but as I tell department heads, if you made mis if there were mistakes that were made, I want to know that.

And it’s not so much to punish people. It’s more to what can we do better go forward.

David Martin: From your mistakes and your failures of your success?

Mark Poloncarz: Correct. I’ve learned so much from issues that I.

David Martin: Screwed up in the past. Right now, I’m.

Mark Poloncarz: Not the smartest guy in the room, but I’ve just I’ve had as many mistakes as anyone else. And if you if you ignore your mistakes, you’re just going to fail. And in these roles, if you fail, then you failed the greater community. So I look at it as if we make a mistake, find out why it happened, and let’s do a better job going forward.

David Martin: What made you decide to be a county executive?

Mark Poloncarz: Well, first off, I practiced law for a number of years, and then I ran to be the chief financial officer of Erie County, the comptroller, which is an elected position following a financial crisis. That was 2005. I ran. I was elected. It was honored to be serve as the county comptroller. We cleaned up the financial mess that Erie County had from the previous administrations, and then in 2011, I didn’t like the direction that the county executive was taking.

Our county was running it more like a business. He was cutting key programs that were necessary. You can’t cut child protective services. You shouldn’t be cutting libraries. And I ran on a theme of, you know what? Your government should be a representative of all the people and all the programs that matter. And when you’re primary provision of services is health and human services, you can’t nickel and dime your way out of it, but you can find ways to do it better.

So I ran on a platform of government shouldn’t be run as a business. It’s not a business. It should be run effectively and efficiently. But you still have to ensure that you’re providing the basic services and then some for the greater public. And the people gave me the privilege to serve as county executive in 2011, and since then I’ve been the representative.

And it’s it’s a great job. It’s a stressful job. There’s a lot of sleepless nights, but it’s a great job because you can leave an imprint on the community for decades to come with the actions and decisions that you make.

David Martin: All right. Now we’re going to get into the heart of the show here and we’re going to get your personal philosophy is going to be revealed. Okay. About government. All right. You’re the county executive in Erie County in Buffalo, New York. Defined good government.

Mark Poloncarz: Good government is finding ways to deliver the services to the public better and more efficiently. There’s always ways to do it. We just because it was done in the past doesn’t mean it’s the best way. As I said, during a situation, a storm, sometimes the newest individual can come up with an idea that’s so much better. So we’re required to provide services to our general public.

I look at the government as a way of doing that in a way that’s more effective, but hopefully more efficient, which means it costs less money in the long run.

David Martin: So you’re driving home or you’re sitting at home on a Sunday afternoon. How do you judge your success if you’ve had success?

Mark Poloncarz: I don’t think I’m the person to judge success for myself. I think it would leave it up to other people to do that. I look at it as am I hearing from the public on the issues and what where do they think we could do things better? Or do they think, hey, you handled that storm well? I was part of the negotiation team for the new lease for the Buffalo Bills just so we had.

David Martin: You’re getting a new stadium.

Mark Poloncarz: The county the county currently owns and is the current stadium. We’re building a new stadium which will eventually be owned by New York State. So I hear that.

David Martin: You are the only New York football team.

Mark Poloncarz: We are the New Jersey Jets and Giants are in the Meadowlands, so they are not New York teams. Right? And that’s true because the NFL, the salaries and the income taxes generated where the games are played. So New Jersey gets all the income tax from the Jets and the Giants. New York State doesn’t, but they do in Buffalo.

So when the players, even the players that are playing for the opposing teams, when they come in, their salaries are taxed in New York based on the location. So we are the only New York State team and we are keeping them here, which was not a given. Three other cities since the last lease was negotiation and negotiated by myself in 2012 who lost their teams.

St Louis, Oakland and San Diego have all lost their teams. They moved. We’re keeping the bills. They’re going to be here for three more, three more decades. And hopefully sometime during that upcoming lease, they’ll finally win a Super Bowl.

David Martin: Well, they they’re getting close.

Mark Poloncarz: They’re close. We thought this was going to be the year after everything we went through. It’s like karma is going to reward us.

David Martin: It’s going to be there.

Mark Poloncarz: Karma, as we know, has a different meaning sometimes. And karma showed us that, no, this wasn’t the year, but we’ll be.

David Martin: Back as I’m sadly, if I’m a fan of any NFL team, it’s the Jets. So you do it better than we are.

Mark Poloncarz: Well, you guys still have at least one one super Bowl. We haven’t won one. Yes.

David Martin: No, but four in a row. Florida Row. That was several years ago. So how would you like the people to hold you accountable to voters, to constituents? How would you like them to hold you accountable for providing good government?

Mark Poloncarz: Well, I think in any is an elected position, you are held accountable when you run for reelection. Yeah. Anytime there is a race involving the incumbent, the race is invariably about the incumbent and incumbents job performance. I hope the public thinks they’ve done a good job. I look at it as You’re never going to please everyone. I learned that a long time ago in government is that if you try to please everyone, you’re not accomplishing anything because the only people who will please everyone in elected positions are ones who are not actually making a difference in their community because someone’s going to get angry because of a policy decision you entered into or you took.

So I look at it as you’re never going to please everyone, but hopefully you’ve done enough to create a better community. My goal and I said this to our my team when I first walked into office is county executive is I don’t want to be measured on the day, but when I finally leave office, have we left our community in a better shape than it was when I took office?

And I believe the answer is yes. Buffalo Erie County is in a better shape since I took office in 2012. That’s how you have to look at this. If you’re trying to analyze it on a day by day. You’re missing the big picture. And the big picture is have we left our community in better shape than we took it?

Is the economy stronger? Are there less people that are on poverty or in poverty and there’s less people on public welfare rolls, so to speak? Have you created more opportunities for advancement in your community, for people of all sectors? One of the key things my administration’s working on right now is health equity issues. We know coming out of the pandemic that the the urgency, the pandemic showed the gross inequities that exist in health care in our community and across the country.

So how can we alleviate that? So if there’s a pandemic in the future, we don’t have inequity, inequities. My goal is big picture. Maybe 20 years after I’m gone, someone will say county executive pulling cars and his team did a good job of of creating a better community. That’s a success for me. But that’s up for other people to determine.

David Martin: If people feel like they’re not getting good government, what should they do? What would you like them to do.

Mark Poloncarz: If they feel they’re not getting good government? First off, they should talk to their representatives. They should let them know where they think they disagree. And a lot of people do that. But if you really feel that it can be done better, run. Run for office. I know a lot of folks who are like, oh, they do a terrible job.

And it’s like, well, why don’t you run for office? I don’t have time for it. Well, if you think you could do a better job or your community can be better represented, run, I consider being in an elected position very honorable. There’s not many people who truly think that anymore. They think, oh, elected officials, politicians are all crooks.

If I wanted to make more money, I’d go back to the private sector and practice law. I’d become a lobbyist. I could make a ton more money. It’s not about making money. It’s about making a difference in your community. And if somebody really believes they could do a better job, they should run or at least get to know what those officials really deal with on a day to day basis.

The issues we deal with run the gamut, as you can imagine. One of the first problems I dealt with when I came in office as county executive is we had a number of children who were dying due to the abuse of parents substitutes, like a stepfather. And our Child Protective Service unit didn’t seem to be protecting them to the level they should have.

When I ran for county executive, there was never a discussion about Child Protective Services in Erie County, but it was an issue that had to be addressed. And we just. Okay, what do we need to do? Let’s bring in some experts from the Child Protective Service field across the country to figure out what we’re doing right or wrong.

And if we are doing it wrong, how can we do it better? And that’s not an issue even I was really aware of when I ran for county executive. So sometimes you got to kind of put yourself in the shoes of the other and realize the difficulties that are faced. And if you really think you could do a better job run.

David Martin: Than you are a controller now the of the executive, what would you like people who aren’t in government to know about government?

Mark Poloncarz: I think a lot of people assume government is this bloated operation that’s run inefficiently, and I actually think it’s really different. Government in most situations is run very efficiently. We have to be we’re accountable to the people. You want to avoid anything that looks like, oh, we’re out there raising taxes for no purpose other than having a good time.

And I think there is this image that government in itself and the people who work in government are not doing a good job. And I look at it opposite. I see what the career civil servants are doing, people who dedicated themselves to a community. I see what other elected officials are doing, and while I may disagree with them on policy, I also understand many of them have it in their heart that they’re trying to do better for the community so we can disagree on policy and hopefully find a middle way to create a better way forward for our community.

And it bothers me when I hear from public, all you guys are all corrupt. You’re all bad. You’re only in it for the dollar. No. As I said, if most people were in it for a dollar, they go to work in the private sector, make a lot more money. It’s about making a difference and creating a better community.

And it’s not easy. It’s difficult work. And I’ve had a lot of folks that I know through Naco who have private sector role jobs, and then there are Commissioner or take a role in a local government, a county, and they’re like, Mark, this is the hardest work I’ve ever had and I’m getting paid beans for it. And I go, Yeah, this is difficult.

And but you have to understand that if you if you feel that this is going to be easy, then you’re probably going to get your head handed to you because this is the type of work that keeps you up at night. There are a lot of sleepless nights, and in the end it’s not always solved in the way you want, but you have to go ahead and try to figure out the best way forward and hopefully get there.

David Martin: Okay. So Buffalo is famous for one thing and one thing only. Buffalo eggs. I’ve covered the buffalo. We haven’t winged buffalo eggs. Are there better buffalo dishes?

Mark Poloncarz: Well, first off, if you go to buffalo, don’t call them buffalo wings. Call them chicken wings. You ask for buffalo wings, they’ll go, Oh, that person’s a Taurus. Chicken wings are great. We have a lot of wing, great wing establishments.

David Martin: Places that anchor. And there’s another place that claims to be the home of.

Mark Poloncarz: Oh, there’s well, anchor bar, as is noted, as the home of the original. Home of the wing. Well, that’s partially in dispute.

David Martin: Yeah. There’s another place I thought.

Mark Poloncarz: That was not as well known. President Obama went to Davos. So there’s always a fight between them when when president comes into town, where is the president going to get their wings? There’s a lot of good restaurants. Gabriel’s Gay Bar, Bill and Easter are they’re all known. Every year. They fight for the best wing in Buffalo competition. And and it always seems to get moved here.

David Martin: Yesterday was the Super Bowl. Did you have ways?

Mark Poloncarz: I did not. I was here. I didn’t have wings. Oh, man. Because nothing matches the wings back home. The wings back home are superlative to what you often find in other locations. The wings are bigger, They’re made, they’re prepared better.

David Martin: How do you get your wings?

Mark Poloncarz: I didn’t get them hot, but hot is hot. Really hot back home. I usually I’ll get I’ll have like one or two hot wings and the rest will be medium. Okay. I tell folks, if you go to the wing establishments in Buffalo and you asked for like the extremely hot.

David Martin: Don’t you’re going to pay the price.

Mark Poloncarz: The other thing we’re known for on food wise is is a dish called beef on weck. It’s it’s very the very thinly sliced roast beef. Okay. And on a kimmel work roll, which is a roll that’s got caraway seeds and salt on top, phenomenal roll and then usually the only thing you’ll put on it if you put anything on is horseradish.

So put some horseradish. It’s be great is a awesome sandwich. It’s a great sandwich. I’ll put it up against any other sandwich in the United States, but most people don’t think about it. But if you go to Buffalo, you get a specialty. You can ask. In most restaurants, you’ll get a small beef on Weck next to like ten wings and you will enjoy Buffalo at its finest with regards to that dish in front of you.

David Martin: So someday you’re going to have to make a bet with a cutie executive from somewhere else. I don’t know. What are you putting up?

Mark Poloncarz: I put up wings and I want those bats, and I’ve lost those bats. And I’ll say this. I just say, if we lose the bats, it’s like, Hey, you got on here. But the 50 wings are coming down to whomever it was. All right? That’s happened to me before. And I’ve also won bats, and it’s always nice when you get that in return.

David Martin: Sure. Was was being a politician and being in office, was it something you always thought about? I mean, as a kid, were you a class president?

Mark Poloncarz: I was not class president. I actually ran the campaign for the person who ran for class president. I was in the by always love politics. I have to admit that I went to law school. I became a lawyer, but I practiced and did a lot of work behind the scenes in politics. I worked on Democratic politics as advanced and a couple of political campaigns there in a Clinton years.

I ran John Kerry’s campaign and basically upstate New York and northwestern Pennsylvania for a while until the end when they brought in somebody specialized for northwest Pennsylvania. So I’ve always been involved in politics in one form or another. I’ve been delegates, Democratic national conventions. But I love it because. Too many people, they say look negative on politics and government, but this is a way to positively impact people’s lives.

You know, if you think about democracy in the original Greek meaning and politics in the original, the Greek meaning with regards to poverty and what it is, I think you look at it is to create a better life. It’s to come together as a community, to make decisions, to create a better life for all. And that’s a that’s a pretty good profession to be in.

David Martin: Let’s finish on an off note. Tell me some of the things that you’re excited about that you’re working on. In Erie County.

Mark Poloncarz: We are focused on a lot of economic development issues. I grew up in a small city south of Buffalo City, Lackawanna, where the thumb steel used to have one of its largest complexes. You have the steel that was inside the Empire State Building, and the Golden Gate was created, forged in Lackawanna, New York, Bethlehem Steel in the eighties.

My father was a steelworker, so it’s that vacant thousand acre area sat vacant counties been involved in in the work to turn that over. And we’re bringing in new businesses. We’ve got 250 years old.

David Martin: With a steel stacks in the Bethlehem.

Mark Poloncarz: Oh, yes.

David Martin: Yeah. Pennsylvania something similar.

Mark Poloncarz: Well, yes and no. We’re looking at it as we want to return this land to productive economic use. Okay. So we are putting some like trail ways and access to Lake Erie that didn’t exist before for the public, but we want to return it primarily to economic use.

David Martin: I should explain. In Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, the headquarters of Bethlehem Steel was they’ve created an arts community. They bought a lot of those old buildings have been revitalized, mostly around the arts. Correct. And there’s also like a little walk you can take along the steelwork.

Mark Poloncarz: So that’s yeah, we kept well, most of the buildings were torn down years ago. Yeah, but there were some that were saved. But those are pretty much being used by companies for various functions. And my look at it is, okay, we’re never going to have 20,000 people working there like they did at the height of Bethlehem Steel. But we’ve been able to bring hundreds of jobs back with green tech companies, high tech companies.

So the area that once produced the steel for America is now producing products and ideas that can help power America going forward. And so that’s a big project that I’ve been working on where, as I said, we’re working on issues of health equity as well as getting more people involved in the health care field. I was talking to Gene Sperling from the Biden administration earlier.

We’ve been in contact a lot and Gene had me at a forum earlier this year at the White House because we have a program called the Erie County Health Care Careers Grants. We’re helping to pay for the education for individuals who may already be in the health care field but want to move up there an LPN, and they want to become a registered nurse.

Okay? Their full embodiment is they want to move up and become an x ray technician. So because they already have a commitment in the field. We are helping to pay for their education. We have so many people that are interested in the program. Not only are we putting in more additional federal and local dollars in the program, but the program is being replicated across the country because it works.

We can see it work. If you take somebody who’s already in the field and wants to advance their, there’s a much greater chance that that person’s in to succeed than someone who’s never worked in the career and stay with it. Yeah. So what we’re seeing is we know health care, we know the issues facing our country. We need more health care workers, we need more registered nurses.

The more we can train them, the faster it can be, the better we’ll be as a community. So that’s a program that we’re working on. And there’s just so much. We continue to invest in our libraries, we’re investing in our parks. Our for fathers and mothers created our park system so they can enjoy them and we can enjoy them while now we have to invest in them now so that not only can we enjoy it, but people 50, 60 years from now who don’t know who I was will still be able to enjoy those parks because of the investments we did today.

That’s the great thing.

David Martin: About 20 years from now, if they name a park after you do good.

Mark Poloncarz: If they name a park after me, I mean, that’s all I ever got out of this job, that would be worth it.

David Martin: Okay. All right. Well, this has been a great conversation. I just there’s probably one more about the snow, so I think you might be worried that.

Mark Poloncarz: Could happen in 2014. We had a blizzard in March. Okay. So I’m keeping my fingers crossed. I’m hoping it doesn’t happen.

David Martin: You got it a month ago. And I think you think you’ll be okay. A very interesting conversation, Mark, calling cards. Thanks so much for coming by. Add a better year next year.

Mark Poloncarz: Thank you, David. I appreciate the conversation and certainly appreciate the comment about a better year because it’s been rough.

David Martin: It has been rough, but you’ve gotten through it. Thank you.

Mark Poloncarz: You’re welcome.

David Martin: The Good government show is sponsored by our CO. That means our community, our CO has found a way to make government even more effective. Our CO provides a platform that blends in-person and digital interactions and that connects people with their government. Their mobile app transforms meaningful conversations into reliable data, and the result is actionable insights that inspires a positive change.

It’s sort of like having a flagpole. Do you want to know if the community would rather have a dog park or a bike trail? Our CO can get you an answer immediately from the folks in your community. With our CO. You can engage your citizens or any group, learn what they want and build programs and policies that advance your county, your job creators and your constituents.

So visit our COCOM. That’s 0urco dot com and learn how they do it. And while you’re there, book a demonstration. That certainly was a lesson in crisis management for Mark Poloncarz of Erie County, New York. As he said it, a responsibility to the greater community. That’s what helped guide him through a rough year and it’s what keeps him going.

It was a hard year to be sure, but like any leader who goes through a crisis, you learn, you evaluate and you improve. Anyway, that’s what I learned from my conversation with Mark Poloncarz. I’m Dave Martin. This is a conversation with. So join us next time we have another conversation with another government leader right here on the Good Government show.

Thanks for listening to the Good Government show and a conversation with is produced by Valley Park Productions. Jim Ludlow, David Martin and David Snyder are the executive producers. Our editor and producer is Jason Stershic. This is the Good government show. Thanks for listening.


**This transcription was created using digital tools and has not been edited by a live person. We apologize for any discrepancies or errors.