Ex-mayors declare for seats on Williamsville Village Board roiled by mask debate

After months of fierce debate over the Covid-19 mask mandate, Williamsville residents now can look forward to an intense Village Board election this year.

Two former village mayors have announced they’re running for a pair of board seats held by allies of Mayor Deb Rogers, who has drawn regional notice as a critic of virus-related restrictions.

Elected officials past and present say it appears Rogers is trying to position herself for a run for higher office.

Mary Lowther and Dan DeLano say they’re running because they have the experience to get the board refocused on issues that matter to village residents.

“I’m not going to get sidetracked, the way they did, by social media politics,” DeLano said. “That’s the problem with an inexperienced board.”

It’s impossible to predict how much of a factor Covid-19 rules will play in an election held in June.

The board voted 3-2, with Trustees Eileen Torre and Christine L. Hunt and Deputy Mayor David F. Sherman giving approval to the resolution to pay the fine. Mayor Deb Rogers was joined by newly-appointed Trustee Matt Carson in voting no.

“I don’t see it as a referendum on the mask and vaccination issue,” said Deputy Mayor Dave Sherman, who hasn’t decided whether to enter the race yet.

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If the incumbents do run, this will continue a recent trend of contested Williamsville elections that ended a long stretch of quiet village races.

As recently as 2019, all four candidates for village office ran unopposed.

But by 2020, three declared candidates sought a single Village Board seat in a special election. And last year, four candidates battled over two trustee posts.

This year, the seats of Sherman and Trustee Matt Carson are on the ballot.

Matthew Etu said he is resigning effective immediately because of a “toxic and destructive” environment created by Williamsville Mayor Deborah Rogers.

Rogers appointed Sherman to fill a vacancy in 2021. She appointed Carson to take the place of Trustee Matthew Etu following his surprising resignation in early January.

Etu, who also served as deputy mayor, blasted Rogers’ “toxic” conduct in his resignation letter.

Rogers said she simply was advocating on behalf of village residents and business.

The issue came to a head in January, when Erie County fined the village $300 after Rogers and others attending the Jan. 10 Village Board meeting did not wear face masks.

The Village Board initially voted 3-2 to hire attorney Todd Aldinger to fight the fine, raising the prospect of hefty legal fees. Sherman later switched sides and joined two other trustees in voting to pay the fine. The village sent the money to the county on Feb. 1.

County Executive Mark Poloncarz confirmed Tuesday that the village is the only local government to be formally sanctioned and fined $300 by the Erie County Health Department for actively and repeatedly flouting the mask-wearing rules.

On Thursday, Lowther and DeLano jointly announced their campaigns for Village Board.

Lowther was first woman to serve as mayor, from 2005 to 2011, and previously served as a village trustee. She now serves as village historian and president of the Williamsville Historical Society.

DeLano served as trustee, deputy mayor and mayor before deciding not to seek re-election in 2019. He is now chair of the Village Tree Board.

Lowther and DeLano said the race isn’t personal because they’re running to serve on the board, no matter who ends up opposing them.

“I hate to see the village held up as a poster child for dysfunction,” Lowther said, adding, “I’m running to make the village better, and that’s the bottom line.”

The debate over facts and freedom and rights and restrictions that has roiled the nation since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic has come to a one-square-mile community where complaining about traffic and parking used to rate as the biggest issue.

They plan to run on the Community First ballot line, the same party to which Trustees Eileen Torre and Christine Hunt belong. Lowther and DeLano are running to serve out the last 12 months on the seats.

Sherman and Carson say they’ll decide soon whether to seek re-election. Sherman is the retired managing editor of the Bee Newspapers. Carson is an active village volunteer who works as an IT programmer for Life Storage.

Both men welcomed the entry of Lowther and DeLano into the race, saying the village benefits when more people are engaged in elective politics.

Sherman and Carson say they’re not sure how much the fight over pandemic-related mandates will affect the election, since the state and county are lifting restrictions.

“I’m hopeful that masks and COVID won’t be an issue in June, but I do think it has shown a lot of us how important it is to get involved in local politics,” Carson said in an email. “I’m hoping for a strong voter turnout, which is a big win for the democratic process.”

About 800 votes were cast in the 2021 village election, and this year’s contest could well surpass that.

It’s also hard to say how much Rogers, who has generated fervent praise and criticism alike for her anti-mandate position, will loom over this race.

“I have no doubt that the prolonged COVID mandates will play a role in this race. Undoubtedly there are those candidates who are proponents of more government, not less,” Rogers said in a text message. “I shouldn’t be a factor. Every candidate should be running on their own merits/platform.”

Many who spoke out at recent Village Board elections aren’t among the eligible voters living within Williamsville’s boundaries.

Signed petitions from interested candidates are due May 17, though we’ll likely know much sooner who’s challenging Lowther and DeLano.

Lowther and DeLano say they haven’t looked ahead to 2023, when both seats will be back on the ballot for full, four-year terms and the mayor’s post will be on the ballot, too.

News Staff Reporter Harold McNeil contributed to this report.

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