HomeWorld NewsGreece, New York: Tough politics define reputation for Rochester town – Democrat & Chronicle
Greece, New York: Tough politics define reputation for Rochester town – Democrat & Chronicle
September 5, 2023
A new Facebook group emerged this summer, promising to expose alleged corruption in Monroe County’s largest suburb.
Even weeks before a lawsuit was filed accusing the Greece town supervisor of an unpaid labor scheme, people were asking an exceedingly familiar question, in a new forum: What is going on in this town?
Allegations in the recent lawsuit are the latest in a string of political scandals that have hung over Greece for the last decade, if not longer, including a harassment investigation and a botched response to a drunken driving crash involving a former police chief.
Once a small farming community, the town of Greece saw its population boom first alongside the growth of the Eastman Kodak Company in the late 1800s and then again once industrialization picked up post-World War II. Now, about 95,000 residents call the town home, including families that span several generations.
Greece, New York: Where kids grow up under the veil of unity, demonstrated through the school district’s motto — One vision. One team. One Greece.
But the town has a dueling persona: It is named for internal strife in classical history.
The story goes that the town was named for the country Greece because that cradle of western civilization had just fought its way out of the grasp of the Ottoman Empire — and the western New York town was tearing away from Gates and similarly wanted its own new beginning.
That tale is not confirmed. But it’s commonly held. “The State (passed) legislation dividing Gates into two towns, Gates and Greece, effective April 1, 1822,” reads a post by the Greece Historical Society. “It is said that Greece received a larger portion of land because, at the time, the northern section of the town was thought to be worthless swamp land.”
Whatever the true history, what is confirmed is that Greece today is a battlefield of sorts. And some are weary of it.
How do you navigate rumors in a town like Greece?
One citizen, Ryan Murphy, was looking into a sudden hike in the tax assessment on his Greece home earlier this summer when he caught wind of the now-public legal complaint against Town Supervisor Bill Reilich.
Murphy is moderator of the “Town of Greece Uncovered” Facebook group.
“This is a platform for the people that have been silenced and for the voices that have been belittled, abused, taken advantage of and have had their jobs used against them,” reads a claim on the page.
Murphy promised to “use facts” to showcase corruption in the town. His posts, which touch on a range of issues, often include copies of public records and a call for tips so he can investigate further.
It seems there is not consistent vetting of posts by members of the group, and some of it is likely conjecture. On a recent post, many debated whether the town is over budget on costly and delayed renovations at the town hall complex. On another, they traded stories about failed attempts to call police or animal control for help corralling stray critters.
Reilich declined an interview for this story, but said in a text message that he believes “the vast majority of residents are pleased with town government.” He noted that the four town board members are going unchallenged in the upcoming November election, and said during his last bid, in 2021, he personally received his highest approval yet, winning 67% of the vote.
But when he first took office in 2014, this was the type of chatter Reilich had hoped to avoid. After a year as town supervisor, he described efforts to make Greece more like the fictional utopia known as “Mayberry.”
In 2019, Reilich himself promised facts would be revealing ― though not of the corruption that Murphy suggests. In a town newsletter, Reilich urged residents to contact his office for a “factual” response to their questions or concerns.
“Remember that rumors are not news,” he wrote. “They are simply rumors.”
Both comments highlight a similar concern: When controversy hits a tight-knit community like Greece, how do you decide what’s true?
Mostly white, with prosperous and contentious history
Those who live in Greece mostly make a good but not-extravagant living; census data puts the median household income around $70,500, slightly less than the Monroe Country median. A place like Brighton is more at the $115,000 household median.
In Greece, a decent retail tax base is strewn along its highway, with chain restaurants and shopping centers where white-collar workers spend their extra cash.
Most residents are homeowners. Suburbs like Greece often benefited in the 20th century from “white flight” from urban areas, as racist city policies undercut stability in places like Rochester and projects like the Inner Loop Highway disrupted generational wealth building for the Black community.
The town is less diverse than its neighboring city, with:
78% of its population white
just under 3% Asian
As hundreds of town residents gathered in lawn chairs on soggy Greece playing fields for an early evening Pop Warner football and cheerleading practice a couple of weeks ago, few cared to talk about the town supervisor.
“When I hear a bunch of people chirping, I don’t get involved in the gossip,” said Sue Baker, almost inaudible over the chants of young girls with high ponytails practicing behind a chainlink fence a few yards away.
Baker has lived in Greece for over 55 years. Decades ago, her son played football for the Greece Chargers, the Pop Warner affiliate that runs programs from kindergarten up through middle school. Now, her grandson and granddaughter take to the fields several nights a week.
“We have a slogan: ‘Once a Charger, always a Charger,’” Baker said. “I’m proud of my town. I raised all my kids here. I have grandkids here. And if I had to do it all over again, I’d do it right here.”
When she and her daughter Gina heard about the allegations against Reilich, they had a hard time believing they could be true.
Politicians become celebrities in a place like Greece
On nights like this one, with parents cheering for their kids and others under a clear blue sky in the late-summer heat, they see the idyllic town Reilich once envisioned.
Greece is the type of town where community events are center stage and politicians become celebrities.
When running for office, Reilich promised to “take back” the Fourth of July after several years without local celebrations. The town has put on a full-day event ever since.
This year, Reilich used a bullhorn to kick off the annual “Freedom Run 5K,” posed for photos with sweaty winners, quickly changed into a Superman T-shirt for the kid-friendly “Superhero Sprint” and took the main stage later that evening to introduce a live band before fireworks.
For the town’s bicentennial anniversary last year, he solicited a showing of over 200 classic cars — all lined up outside of town hall, hoods popped, in neat rows of cherry red, bright yellow and different tones of baby blue — to celebrate 200 years. The owner of his favorite car walked away with a “Supervisor’s Choice” plaque.
When new businesses open in town, there are photo opps with oversized checks, ceremonial shovels and jumbo scissors cutting through red ribbon. It breathes classic small town politics.
Sue and Gina Baker praised how accessible Reilich feels:
He often puts out traffic alerts, they said, and town workers do a good job of keeping the roadways clear of snow.
A splash pad and community center in town are a notch above similar amenities in surrounding suburbs.
There is always a free town event with enough police on the ground to make these gatherings feel safe.
“I don’t know him personally. I just know what he does for our community. I just don’t see someone that is always looking out for others acting like that,” Gina said about the claims in the lawsuit.
To dig any deeper would mean pulling time away from her family or the community, which doesn’t feel worth it when life in Greece for them seems to run pretty smoothly.
“To me, that’s just peanuts,” she said.
Others at the Pop Warner practice had similarly glimpsed news headlines but held off on asking more questions. Some knew nothing of the allegations. Many muttered exasperations of corrupt politicians everywhere, not just in Greece, and rattled off higher-priority issues:
What about the rash of car thefts plaguing the Greater Rochester area? Asylum seekers brought to the city, seemingly with no plan for how to support them? Area teachers and firefighters charged with child pornography?
Those issues seem more important, they said.
Does a lack of political engagement contribute to problems?
Cynicism and apathy about local politics can lead to the very issues residents condemn.
Political scandals have long contributed to declining trust in all levels of government, stretching back to the days of Watergate, said Tom Ivacko, who heads the Center for Local, State and Urban Policy at the University of Michigan.
Local governments have a leg up in restoring that trust because of the opportunity for direct contact with their constituents. Ivacko said engaging residents through surveys, oversight commissions and more can go a long way. But true accountability lies with its townspeople.
“People are busy with their own lives, but we do have a government of the people, and if they abandon their responsibilities and civic duties, they may not like what they end up with,” he said.
Despite the small-town feel in Greece, ongoing controversy has drummed up a sort of sordid reputation for the town among outsiders. When news of the lawsuit broke, it caused little fanfare, with many on social media unsurprised by the allegations.
Jason Clohessy can’t help but chuckle when he thinks about how residents of neighboring towns react when he tells them where he lives.
“Ugh,” he sighed during a recent phone interview. “It’s not usually the best. Every surrounding area has their stereotypical kind of people. But I think Greece kind of gets a bad rap for being the typical, westside town of corruption. It just seems like anytime Greece is in the public eye, it’s with a negative light.”
But when these scandals catch his ear, Clohessy teeters between not wanting to write off the whole system based off “one bad apple,” and wondering how much is being swept under the rug. “There’s only so much you can do as a civilian,” he said. “I don’t have any control over that.”
Brian Caterino feels differently. He is a writer who has taught as an adjunct professor, with a doctorate in political science from the University of Toronto.
He has lived in Greece for more than 70 years and his Italian American family once ran the public access television station, WGCE. It featured a wide variety of local programming and when his father died, it was left to him.
Sometime within the last two decades or so, Caterino said, he started noticing a lack of will for change in the town.
Local news coverage of the town dried up, Caterino said, and he feels the local government has become a one-party state. (He did have his fights over the years with Greece over the TV station).
While Greece is split almost evenly politically ― registered voters are about one-third Democrat, one-third Republican and one-third unaffiliated, according to 2022 county data ― Republicans have taken hold of all five town board positions, including the town supervisor role.
A review of board meeting minutes showed the board voted together on every single matter brought before them in the last year.
Caterino said the recent lawsuit echoed a long-standing belief of his: “If you dare to dissent, you will be kicked out.”
He believes that a healthy community needs representation from multiple political parties and points of view. But he is not sure where it will come from.
“Criticism is not a bad thing,” Caterino said. “You want to have debate, discussion. You want to have dissent.
“I think people haven’t become involved enough or they’ve become so used to the scandals, you know, they think somebody else will take care of it. But most people have literally given up on changing Greece.”
― The Monroe County District Attorney’s Office is investigating the recent Greece allegations. USA TODAY Network-New York has filed public records requests for town labor rules, benefits agreements with employees and related communications between top town officials.
SOME OF THE CONTROVERSIAL HISTORY IN GREECE: The recent lawsuit adds to the long list of controversies in Greece, including —