Crisis Management in Buffalo with Mark Polencarz

First a racist shooting left 10 dead. Then a once a century blizzard left 31 dead. Through it all Erie County New York executive Mark Polencarz managed the county through two tragic crises. Hear how he did it.

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Mark Polencarz: I’ve always been of the opinion that, will 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 could 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 your host, Dave Martin. A master class in crisis management. That is what Mark Polencarz the eerie New York County executive offers in this conversation as a good government show. First, it was a mass shooting that left ten dead and three wounded. Then he had to handle a winter storm that left 46 people dead in the region.

Leadership is what good elected officials offer, and Mark Poloncarz has had his share of leadership challenges. The entire nation was horrified by a mass shooting in Buffalo. A white racist targeted African-Americans at their local supermarket in their neighborhood. His goal was to kill as many people as he could. While the nation may have moved on to the next shooting in Erie County, in Buffalo County, Executive Poloncarz had to work to heal his community.

Then things got worse. In December 2022, some 50in of snow was dumped on Buffalo. The four day storm included hurricane force winds, rain, freezing temperatures and a huge change in weather in just a matter of hours. They called it a once in a generation snow storm. It wasn’t just snow, it was snow. Rain. Hurricane force winds. Freezing temperatures.

And on one day, a record two feet of snow fell. People were trapped. They died in their cars. Rescue workers couldn’t get to the people who needed help. In all, 46 deaths were attributed to the blizzard. This was a real test of leadership. Mark Poloncarz talks about how to manage government in a time of crisis. And while you can plan for some of it.

You can’t plan for everything both nature and one racist active shooter can throw at you. Either of those can be a career defining crisis. But nearly two back to back. That’s a test of leadership and government. So listen to my conversation with Mark Paul and Cards. Oh, and on the lighter side, this is Buffalo. We had to talk about chicken wings.

So join me and Mark Poloncarz for that conversation coming up 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 USA.

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 Polencarz. Mark, thank you for being with us. if you would introduce yourself, tell us where you’re from and your title.

Mark Polencarz: It’s my pleasure to be here. David, I once again Mark Polencarz in the Erie County Executive. for New York, there’s 3 or 3 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 it’s responsible for everything health and human services to parks and libraries, you name it. we’re involved in an 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 Polencarz: Yeah. A lot of people are like, what is the county executive? It’s comparable to 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, their commissioners. they’re 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 there is you’ve probably had the hardest job of any county executive in America over the past year.

Mark Polencarz: 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. We went through the Omicron wave. More than 3000 of my residents have died since the beginning of the Covid 19 pandemic. We’ve had significant impact from the pandemic. Then 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 supremacist from outside our area came into town to kill as many African-Americans as he could kill ten people. at the top supermarket in Buffalo, which really isn’t that far from my house. I’ve shot there. I’ve shot there in the past, I shot there.

it’s not 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.

Yeah. 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 Polencarz: 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 to sit down and say, okay, we need to come together. there 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. the the the houses of worship to to address what was a, 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 Polencarz: Yeah. And the problem was, it wasn’t even the most snow we’ve ever received in the storm in the last few years. But the winds were hurricane force over 75 mile per hour winds. on average, 50 to 65mph for 36 hours. And what was created were blinding conditions where you couldn’t see more than 3 or 4ft. 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 wind chills 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 like.

Mark Polencarz: 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 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, 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 could send our FIRStrillionESPONDERS out. It might be difficult for them to 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. FIRStrillionESPONDERS 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 it was the worst case scenario.

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

Mark Polencarz: 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 as 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, 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 in an ambulance out to to save them. But when the ambulance can’t get through because there’s 3.5ft 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, is 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. Yeah, I didn’t. The only way to to 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 could call to get information. Okay, we can’t get 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 the wherewithal to continue in the face of some serious criticism? Well, we did, and was it fair?

Mark Polencarz: 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 future snow, only four feet of snow. We’ve had four feet of snow before.

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 three 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 of 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 lift would pick up the snow and just push it, 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 blizzards like we had in the past that were easy to handle. It could be like in 2022 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. Okay. 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.

David Martin: Yes.

Mark Polencarz: It’s it’s the worst case scenario.

David Martin: It’s got to be.

Mark Polencarz: And it was. And so the that.

David Martin: Must have been a hellish days for you.

Mark Polencarz: It was I mean, I was at our operation center at 7:00 in the morning and 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 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 learned from previous storms.

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

Mark Polencarz: It’s not so much enjoying the challenge is reacting. Yeah. They said I arrived at our emergency operation.

David Martin: This is this 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 that how do you how do you I guess how do you deal with that?

Mark Polencarz: You just work in the moment. one of the things that we dealt with during the storm and afterwards, because of the shear issues that we were, facing, was the the realization 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 hear.

So it was just work 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, will 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 and 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 parks. They like doing the ribbon cuttings.

They like the happy stuff. Yeah, 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 were there things that could have been done better and learn from it?

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

Mark Polencarz: Yeah. First off, you got to really have a good staff. You will succeed or fail as an elected official. As an appointed official with the staff that surround 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.

David Martin: Amount of the police department used to say, you can’t sharpen your sword. What’s the battle has begun?

Mark Polencarz: Correct? Yeah. 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 operations center, there are no generals. Everyone’s in private. Okay? Everyone has a 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 got to put the hats off, take the hats off. No generals know leaders, per se. Everyone has a role in what you end up finding out is the collaboration, and 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? Yeah. 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, it 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 Y? And sometimes y is better, so let’s do it.

David Martin: Do you have conversations? Do you meet regularly with of your staff? Just slowly drop in.

Mark Polencarz: And my 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 to 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 require 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 in a in a loss position because you need to not only know what’s going on 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. Yeah. It’s more to what can we do better.

David Martin: Going forward from your mistakes and your failures and to your success. Right?

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

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

Mark Polencarz: Not the smartest guy in the room, but I’ve just I’ve had as many mistakes as anyone else. And. 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 Polencarz: 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 2000 and, five. I ran, I was elected. I 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 your 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 as 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, okay? 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 Polencarz: good government is finding ways to deliver the services to the public better and more efficiently. There’s always ways to do it. 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 Google 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 Polencarz: I don’t think I’m the person to judge success for myself. I think if you leave it up to other people to do that, I look at it is, 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 handle that storm?

Well, I was part of the negotiation team for the new lease for the Buffalo Bills. Just so.

David Martin: we had. You’re getting a new stadium.

Mark Polencarz: The county currently owns. And instead of the current stadium, we’re building a new stadium which will eventually be owned by New York State. so I hear.

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

Mark Polencarz: We are. The new Jersey, Jets and Giants are in the Meadowlands. So they’re 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. 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, have lost their teams.

Saint Louis, Oakland and San Diego have all lost their teams. They’ve 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 their club.

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

David Martin: It’s going to be.

Mark Polencarz: Their 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, sadly, if I’m a fan of any NFL team, it’s the Jets. So you do better than we are.

Mark Polencarz: Well, you guys still have at least one won Super Bowl. We haven’t won one yet.

David Martin: But four in a row in a 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 Polencarz: Well, I think in any is an elected position. You are held accountable when you run for reelection. Yeah. any time there is a race involving the incumbent, the race is invariably about the incumbent and the incumbents job performance. I hope the public thinks I’ve done a good job. I look at it is, 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, 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?

Because 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 shows, 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 an inequities. My goal is big picture, maybe 20 years after I’m gone, someone will say County Executive Paul and 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 Polencarz: 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. And it’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 are 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 to realize the difficulties that are faced. And if you really think you could do a better job, run.

David Martin: you are a controller. Now you’re the county executive. What would you like people who aren’t in government to know about government?

Mark Polencarz: 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’ve 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, a middle way to create a better way forward for our community.

And it bothers me when I hear from public, oh, you guys are all corrupt. You’re all bad. You’re only in it for the dollar. No, as I said, if most people are in it for a dollar, they go 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 roll jobs, and then there a commissioner or or take a role with and, you know, 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 wings. I’ve covered the buffalo. we have a wing. Buffalo wings. Are there better buffalo dishes?

Mark Polencarz: Well, first off, if you go to buffalo, don’t call them buffalo wings called chicken wings. Chicken away. Buffalo wings. They’ll go, oh, that person’s a tourist. chicken wings are great. We have a lot of wing great wing establishments.

David Martin: In places that anchor. And there’s another place that seems to be the home of.

Mark Polencarz: Oh, there’s. Well, anchor bar is is noted as, the the home of the original home of the wing right there. That’s partially in dispute.

David Martin: Yeah. There’s another place.

Mark Polencarz: I think there’s a lot offices well known. President Obama went to Davos, so there’s always a fight between them when when the president comes into town, where’s the president going to get their wings?

David Martin: Yeah.

Mark Polencarz: there’s a lot of good restaurants. Gabriel’s gate, bar Bill in East Aurora, they’re all known every year they fight for the best wing in Buffalo competition. And. Okay. And it always seems to get moved here.

David Martin: Yesterday was a Super Bowl. Did you have wings?

Mark Polencarz: I did not, I was here, I didn’t have wings. Oh. Well, 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 about you get your wings? I can.

Mark Polencarz: Get them hot. but hot is hot. Really hot. Back home. usually I’ll get a I’ll have, like, 1 or 2 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 don’t, you’re gonna pay the price. the other thing we’re known for, on food wise, is, is a dish called beef on weck.

It’s, it’s very, very thinly sliced roast beef. Okay. And, on a Kimmel quick 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.

David Martin: It’s be.

Mark Polencarz: Great. It’s an 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. Yeah. Next to like ten wings. Okay. And you will enjoy buffalo at its finest with regards to that dish in front of you.

David Martin: So someday you’re gonna have to make a bet with a county executive from somewhere else. Oh, I don’t what? What are you putting up?

Mark Polencarz: I I’ve put up wings. and.

David Martin: I.

Mark Polencarz: Don those bets, and I’ve lost those bets, and, I’ll say this, I just say if we lose the bats, it’s like, hey, you got honor a bet 50, wings are coming down to whomever it was, 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, sure. was was being, a politician and being in office was is something you always thought about? I mean, as a kid with your class president?

Mark Polencarz: I was not class president. I actually ran the campaign for the person who ran for class president. I was in the. I 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 in a couple of political campaigns there in the clean years.

I ran John Kerry’s, campaign in 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 one form or another. I’ve been delegates, Democratic National Conventions. But I love it because too many people, I say look negative on politics and government, but this is a way to positively impact people’s lives.

You if you think about democracy and the the original Greek meaning in politics, in the original, the Greek meaning with regards to polity and what it is, I think if 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 up note, tell me some of the things that you’re excited about that you’re working on in Erie County.

Mark Polencarz: we are focused on a lot of economic development issues. I grew up in a small city south of Buffalo, city of Lackawanna, where, Buffalo Steel used to have one of its largest complexes. You have the steel that was. It’s in the Empire State Building. And the Golden Gate was created, forged in Lackawanna, New York. Bethlehem Steel closed in the 80s.

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

David Martin: Acres with, steel stacks in the Bethlehem.

Mark Polencarz: Oh, yes.

David Martin: Yeah. Are you saying something similar?

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

David Martin: I should explain, but, in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where the headquarters of Bethlehem Steel was, they’ve created an arts community. They fought, they’ve 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 steel work. So that’s.

Mark Polencarz: Yeah, we 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. 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. Eugene had me at a, 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, 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 career, there’s a much greater chance that that person’s going to succeed than someone who’s never worked in the career. But stay.

David Martin: With it.

Mark Polencarz: 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 will 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 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. We’ll 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 go there, you did good.

Mark Polencarz: 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 there’s probably one more month of snow, so I think you might be, We’re worried. Yeah. Okay.

Mark Polencarz: 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. Yeah.

David Martin: Good. If you got another one to go and I think you think you’ll be okay. a very interesting conversation. my polling cards. Thanks so much for coming by. And, a better year next year.

Mark Polencarz: 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, and you’ve gotten through it. Thank you.

Mark Polencarz: You’re welcome.

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That certainly was a lesson in crisis management for Mark Poloncarz of Erie County, New York. As he said it, our 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 when we have another conversation with another government leader right here on The Good Government Show. Thanks for listening.

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 a 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.