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Mychajliw vs. Shenk for Chief Budget Nerd

2 Nov

The race for Erie County Comptroller is something we all know about, but understand little. Including one of the candidates for the office.

The Comptroller is our chief budgetary nerd. He keeps an eye on where the money’s coming from, how much there is, and where it’s going. He makes sure that the money is being spent the way it’s supposed to be spent, and he conducts audits from time to time to examine just that. Because budgets are prospective, it’s important to know throughout the year how we’re doing with its predictions, and in the end, how we did – did we overspend? Is there a surplus? Did we hit it just right? So many variables can skew the numbers in a given year. 

It’s not an inherently political position, although it’s an elected one. The comptroller should be independent of the legislature and the County Executive. The comptroller should conduct monitoring, auditing, and borrowing without regard to the political expediency of any of it, and instead act in what he believes is the best fiscal interests of county taxpayers. He should be a watchdog, and not anyone’s lapdog. 

That’s why Mark Poloncarz and Chris Collins didn’t get along; Collins was not used to, and didn’t like, having his decisions subject to careful review and monitoring, so he clashed with the Comptroller’s office almost constantly. 

Now, we have David Shenk, the interim Comptroller appointed to complete Poloncarz’s second term running against former journalist and current public relations specialist Stefan Mychajliw. Mychajliw, you’ll recall, was Collins’ campaign spokesman in 2011. 

Mychajliw is running on his youthful vigor, his easy way of connecting with voters, his pledge to be independent, his immigrant bona fides, his personal thriftiness, and his experience as a Channel 2 “redcoat” TV journalist, who asks “tough questions” of politicians. Shenk is running on his record as Boston Town Clerk and having had his mettle tested in the military. It’s been a relatively quiet campaign until this week. 

First, Mychajliw ran an ad pledging that the first “audit” he would conduct would look into the “friends and family” hiring practices in county government. That’s fantastic, but completely outside of the job description of a Comptroller. Hiring “friends and family” through patronage or nepotism may be something we don’t like because it is, or seems, unfair, but it doesn’t affect county finances unless you’re creating a new job for the person. Presumably, the underlying position and its related costs would already be accounted-for in the budget, and the decision on hiring is not reviewable or subject somehow to audit. 

Auditing is about money – not politics. 

Pledging to audit hiring practices is silly, but how exactly will he have the power to “end it”? He doesn’t have legislative powers, or even executive power with respect to changing that. And if a “friend” or “family” is qualified for the job, what objective harm is being done to the county coffers? 

This is WBEN / Red Coat stuff. That’s why Shenk replies with this: 

But more importantly – what qualifications does Mychajliw have to be Comptroller? Remember how Poloncarz’s detractors said he was unqualified because he didn’t have a CPA? Well, he didn’t, but his staff did, and Poloncarz has a JD and had extensive experience in corporate finance law. Mychajliw, on the other hand, has no such experience, no such advanced degree, no qualifications whatsoever to be chief budget nerd of Erie County. His LinkedIn page reveals undergraduate degrees in political science and broadcast journalism. That’s it.  Shenk has an undergraduate degree in management, and has been Boston Town Clerk and tax collector for 20 years

But when you examine the two candidates, who has an understanding of what’s going on? Here’s a telling exchange from a recent debate between Mychajliw and Shenk:

Not an exciting race by any measure, but it seems as if one candidate – Shenk – has a better grasp of not only the facts, but the terminology.