New Faces for Voters on East Side: Candidates for Common Council’s 5th District

Lance Denno, top center, with his family, clockwise from him, wife, Moira Kelly; children, Christopher holding Rhys, Lydia and Jennifer.  (Courtesy of Lance Denno)

Lance Denno, top center, with his family, clockwise from him, wife, Moira Kelly; children, Christopher holding Rhys, Lydia and Jennifer. (Courtesy of Lance Denno)

The Democratic Party gave Lance Denno the party designation on May 24. Neil Driscoll said he will not continue to run and force a primary. (Update by Nancy Madsen)

For the voters in the East Side’s 5th Common Council District, the city Democrats are considering three candidates for the party’s nomination in the fall election. The city’s Republicans, as of May, had not fielded a candidate. But the party has until June to find someone to run. The seat is open because the incumbent, Bill Simmons, a Democrat, is stepping down. Simmons could not run for a fourth term because of term limits.

The three potential Democratic candidates are Lance Denno, a retired firefighter; Neil Driscoll, the public information officer for the Syracuse Public Schools; and attorney Dennis Lerner. NCC’s Sinhue Mendoza has this early look at the candidates for the 5th District Common Council election.

“The seventeenth ward makeup it makes up so much of that district. We kind of think of it as our councilor. And we want a councilor that is going to react to citizen’s calls to, to go to meetings, do the things, do the hard work.” (Dustin Czarny)

Democratic 17th Ward Chairman Dustin Czarny knows what to expect from the candidates running to represent the ward he lives in. His ward is part of the 5th district, located on the east side of the city. The district also covers parts of 4th, 5th, and a little bit of the 16th ward. The candidates all live in the 17th ward, the largest and most Democratic ward in the city.

Lance Denno and Dennis Lerner currently serve in the 17th Ward committee, and Neil Driscoll has served on the committee in years past.

Lance Denno

One of the candidates for the Democratic nomination is Lance Denno, a retired Syracuse deputy fire chief. (Update: Denno was given the Democratic designation May 24.) He is the chairman of the board for the Syracuse Fire Department Credit Union. He has a master’s degree in public administration from Syracuse University Maxwell School. Denno is a veteran of city politics. He ran for his party’s nomination for an at-large seat on the Common Council in two thousand and six. As a graduate of the public school system in Syracuse, Denno’s says his biggest concern is communication with the school district.

“I find that there is a lack of communication between the school district and city hall which needs to be corrected and I think I am well positioned to do that.” (Lance Denno)

Denno says that his qualification comes from his work as a volunteer in several groups working for education policies.

“I have been engaged with a lot of volunteer efforts on behalf of the school district — Parents for Public Schools, New York State Alliance for Quality Education, Nottingham quadrant reconfiguration plan for city schools.” (Denno)

Denno wants to bring back something that he thinks is missing in communications between the city and the school district. He recalled the Common Council education committee meetings with school district officials.

“That has not been happening over the last year and I intend to reinstate that practice.” (Denno)

Another of Denno’s biggest concerns is economic development. He would like to see what he calls a “thriving arts community” that is marketed well. He would also like to see amateur sports supported through renovations to athletic facilities, such as gyms and pools throughout the city. Denno is disappointed in the efforts of the primary institution that the city uses for economic development, the Syracuse Industrial Development Agency. He doesn’t feel like this agency makes much sense when trying to improve the city economically.

“I’m no economic genius but I think industry is not the economic tool that’s going to bring Syracuse back to the stature it held in days past.” (Denno)

Denno hopes to bring economic development by tearing down the bridges of Interstate-81 that run through the downtown area. These bridges have almost reached their life span and he’d like to see them torn down which he thinks would revitalize the surrounding communities.

“The Interstate should be taken down. Boulevard-style highway should be put through with essentially green space to the east of the highway and small business development opportunities along the west side of the highway.” (Denno)

Denno hopes that his hard work ethic helps him earn his party’s nomination.

Neil Driscoll

Another person seeking the nomination is the city school’s Public Information Officer Neil Driscoll. Driscoll is retiring from the district where he has served for more than ten years. Before the school district, he was a political columnist and City Hall reporter for the Syracuse Post-Standard for 30 years. Like Denno, Driscoll is a veteran of politics.

He served on former Mayor Tom Young’s staff. Now he hopes to go back to politics where he would like to tackle an issue that he says is misunderstood.

“Very many misconceptions about our schools. But our schools remain a problem. But I do think we need the whole community involved.” (Driscoll)

Driscoll says the involvement by the population is more vital than just funding.

“I don’t think we need to keep throwing money at the educational problem in our city. But I do think we need the whole community involved. (Driscoll)

He would like to see the community involved because a lot of the kids that are in the schools just aren’t motivated.

“One of our major problems is that children aren’t motivated. They don’t see the value of education. Think as a community we have to address that.” (Driscoll)

This lack of motivation brings about a new dilemma in the district.

“Street gangs, the5th District on the East Side of Syracuse — we have the emergence now of four or five street gangs that did not exist in the area up till about a year ago.” (Driscoll)

Driscoll says the lack of jobs, tough neighborhoods and not having so many resources available could be the reason.

“Young people are just bored out of their mind with their present condition. And the lack of work and lack of opportunity. And I think that if we address these people and try to present an alternative lifestyle or some hope.” (Driscoll)

That hope, he says, could come through jobs.

“If we can improve the value of education for kids, show them a way out, or to provide them with job opportunities. Whether they’re seasonal but to really put a major effort on creating work. Or finding jobs for many of these young people. So that they see a way out of some of the bad environments they’re personally existing in.” (Driscoll)

Driscoll doesn’t see the Destiny USA project creating the jobs necessary for serious development.

“I think that we’re making a big mistake of banking all our energy that Destiny’s going to save the city. I think that the corporate leaders have to get together and try to create worth while jobs here that young people are interested in.” (Driscoll)

Driscoll isn’t against the mall being built but certainly doesn’t feel as optimistic as others may feel.

“I don’t think it’s going to be the be-all, end-all. I think that mall’s, you know, serve a limited purpose. I’m certainly not opposed to it. But I don’t think it’s going to create the great new society that people think it will.” (Driscoll)

Dennis Lerner

The third candidate, Dennis Lerner, would also like to help solve the city’s problems. Lerner’s roots in Syracuse go as far back as his grandparents. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Syracuse University and earned a law degree at S-U’s Law School. Like Lance Denno, Lerner is a committee member in the 17th ward and, like Neil Driscoll, he was on the staff of former Mayor Tom Young. He ran an unsuccessful campaign to run for city court judge in 2003. But now he hopes to represent his community if given the Democratic nomination.

“I think I’ve lived in eight or ten houses in my life, all in the 17th ward. They’re all in the 5th Council District and I’m part of this community.” (Lerner)

Lerner’s investment to his community motivates him to represent his area that sometime receives less attention.

“The East Side, because conditions are better in the over all, gets less attention, less support, has received less attention than other parts of the city. And I don’t think that’s right because if you’re not making investments, then you’re permitting decay and erosion of quality of the community to take place.” (Lerner)

If Lerner earns the Democratic nomination and eventually becomes a councilor he plans to work for his district’s fair share.

“I’m committed to seeing to it that we get our fair share of the community’s resources to keep our community at the level it is. And to improve things when we have the opportunity to do that.” (Lerner)

Lerner is committed to improving the city schools. He tried to run for school board but because he is an attorney, the party asked him to run for city court judge instead. As an attorney, he sees broken family homes and he says he’d like to see the schools become community learning centers.

“It isn’t the teacher’s job alone to educate children. It’s the community’s job, parents, the institutions, and so on. And I think it is very important that our kids see education as a valuable and important on going part of the community process.” (Lerner)

Lerner would like to see parents more involved and would like to see programs set up that educate adults and not just the children.

“Seeing their parents, their friends, their relatives, their friends relatives involved in education on an on going basis is an important thing for all of us. I think it will improve the performances of our schools and will make our community more competitive and give us a higher quality of life over all.” (Lerner)

Lerner sees the city’s economy struggling and credits some of it to poor leadership.

“We have isolated decision-makers making decisions about themselves and their piece of the community but not in the context of what shape and larger community are going to have of the overall city. I’m a planner by training, so I think in terms of what’s the big picture. Where are we going? What are all these little pieces adding up to? What do we want to achieve? Where do we want to put our emphasis?” (Lerner)

Lerner’s sees the big picture in a project to open an old-fashioned supermarket downtown. That project would bring new jobs and promote growth in the area. A topic often debated is Destiny USA. Lerner would like to see it happen. But he knows that if the pieces aren’t put into place it could be a detriment.

“If we don’t find a way to bring in new people, new families, new businesses, to this community, then were just reallocating the existing buyers among the new spaces. And that does not do anything for the community.” (Lerner)

Lerner and his fellow candidates will know if the committee members in the 5th district nominated them by May 24th. When they know who has been nominated, the other candidates can choose to challenge the decision in a primary. The main election will be Tuesday, November 6th. Sinhue Mendoza, NCC News.

(Sinhue Mendoza is a senior broadcast journalism major.)


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