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Questions and concerns enshroud endorsement for first district

Thomas Caputo
Staff writer
Posted 3/7/23

The Utica Democratic Committee’s endorsement of Mirela Pekmez for first district councilor has raised questions and concerns from incumbent Katie Aiello.

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Questions and concerns enshroud endorsement for first district


UTICA — The Utica Democratic Committee’s endorsement of Mirela Pekmez for first district councilor has raised questions and concerns from incumbent Katie Aiello.

Aiello has represented the first district, which encompasses the city’s downtown region and parts of east and west Utica, since being sworn in on Jan. 1, 2022. As a councilor, she has worked to pass legislation benefitting her district, collaborated with public safety officials and spearheaded efforts to begin a Complete Streets trial on Genesee Street.

On Feb. 9, the Utica Democratic Committee voted on endorsements for candidates running for the first district — selecting Pekmez over Aiello. Aiello said she was surprised by the committee decision, claiming she originally received an endorsement from the Executive Committee on the Utica Democratic Committee.

“Everything was strange from the moment I walked in that night — the looks on people’s faces, the conversations that they would or wouldn’t have, the way that they would look away, something was up from the moment I walked into that room,” Aiello said.

Political endorsements, by any entity, serve as a public declaration of support for a candidate running for office. While endorsements may be influential in a voter’s decision, they do not guarantee a candidate will win a specific party’s primary.

“When it came time to nominate me, there was complete silence ... Then it came time to who would nominate Mirela, they all said ‘aye.’ There was something definitely secretive about that night and when approaching people afterwards, they all scurried,” Aiello added. “They wanted to send a message and they did, and now I’m sending one back.”

The Utica Democratic Committee’s First District Chair, Lucretia Hunt, did not respond to requests for comment.

During the upcoming primary election, Democratic voters in the first district will decide who will receive the party line for first district councilor in the general election this fall. The New York State primary election is Tuesday, June 27, with early voting from Saturday, June 17, to Sunday, June 25.

Aiello’s criticism of the Utica Democratic Committee is not the first time a Democratic city councilor has spoken out against the committee. Third District Councilor Celeste Friend, who is running for mayor, claimed the Executive Committee had recommended the committee remain neutral in Democratic primary race for mayor — where Friend and fellow councilor Frank DiBrango are seeking the party line on the ballot — only for the Utica Democratic Committee to overturn the recommendation and vote to endorse DiBrango.

Aiello said she has several concerns about the committee’s endorsement and previous interactions she said she had with Pekmez and her fiance Russell Pelli. Pekmez declined to comment on any allegations made by Aiello, however, she provided a statement regarding her endorsement from the Utica Democratic Committee.

“We both screened with the committee, and they chose to endorse me,” Pekmez said. “She said it herself in her radio interview that there would be many reasons why they would chose someone else over her, so why this came as a surprise to her, I’m not sure. The only difference is this time around, she has an opponent and has to run a campaign and explain to people why they should re-elect her as their councilperson. I plan on running a campaign about the issues important to people in the first ward and letting them know what I would do as their councilperson.”

Aiello's allegations

Aiello’s allegations against Pekmez and Pelli stem from issues relating to the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding allocated to the first district by the city. Aiello claims that she was aggressively lobbied by both Pekmez and Pelli to receive a portion of the funding so they can renovate a building they own at 649-655 Bleecker St.

Aiello has published a timeline that documents every interaction she had with Pekmez and Pelli, accompanied by photos and screenshots, on her website.

According to the timeline, Aiello has alleged the following:

  • On Feb. 22, 2022, Aiello posted on her Facebook page that each city councilor in the six city districts had been awarded $200,000 in ARPA funding to use on “qualified projects they see fit for their district.” In her post, she shared that she was “looking forward to hosting meetups throughout the district to hear from everyone as we evaluate potential project ideas, their costs, and ultimately the value they would have in our community.” That same day, she received a message on Facebook Messenger from Pekmez asking to be considered as a recipient for the ARPA funding, as her and Pelli own a building on Bleecker Street that was in need of repair and was, at the time, a potential site for the Mohawk Valley Latino Association to move into.
  • On Feb. 26, 2022, a note was left for Aiello at her business, Character Coffee, from Pelli asking for a form to apply for the funding and mentioning that his building is trying to accommodate the Mohawk Valley Latino Association. That same day, Aiello replied to Pekmez’s Feb. 22 Facebook message and explained to Pekmez what the funding was for. Aiello stated that she explained that the funding wasn’t a grant to apply for and that she would be holding public meetings with her constituents to talk about how to use the money best for the district.
  • On Feb. 27, 2022, Pelli showed up to Character Coffee, placed an order and presented Aiello with an envelope with $500 enclosed to pay for his order and to utilize the remaining funds as an act of kindness to “pay it forward” and pay for other customers’ orders at her business. While Aiello initially used some of the funds to pay for customers orders, as Pelli requested, she ended up returning the remaining funds to Pelli. Aiello found later that Pelli had left the remaining $467 in the envelope and had placed it behind her coffee bar.
  • On March 3, 2022, Aiello and Pekmez exchanged messages over Facebook Messenger where Aiello tried to assist Pekmez in finding grants that she and her fiancé would be eligible for, in addition to further clarifying the purpose of the ARPA funding for the first district and informing her of the first public meeting that would take place.
  • On March 6, 2022, Aiello wrote on Facebook that there is a survey where people can share ideas about how the $200,000 in ARPA funding should be used in the first district. That same day, Pelli filled out the survey, seeking $100,000 of the $200,000 to fix his building, which he said would then be able to accommodate nonprofit organizations and cultural centers.
  • On March 11, 2022, Aiello spoke with Sonia Martinez, the executive director of the Mohawk Valley Latino Association, where Martinez stated that while they did consider Pelli’s building as a potential location to move into, they have since found a different location they were interested in. Martinez has confirmed that this conversation took place.
  • On March 27, 2022, Aiello mailed a money order of $467 along with a receipt and a letter to Pelli thanking him for his appreciation and support of her business but stating that she cannot accept donations.
  • On March 30, 2022, a petition was created by Pelli to “Ask Katie Aiello for Italian and Bosnian Cultural Center funding” with a description to have the funds “help by installing new HVAC systems bathrooms and upgrade the building to codes.” The same day the petition went live, Hanka Grabovica, president of the Bosnian American Community Association, reached out to Aiello to state that they had nothing to do with the petition and that they were not associated with Pekmez or Pelli. Grabovica has confirmed that this conversation took place.
  • On Jan. 21, Aiello and Pekmez were both screened by the Executive Committee of the Utica Democratic Committee to seek the first district’s Democratic endorsement. After Aiello’s screening, she was informed by the Utica Democratic Committee’s chair that she had been endorsed.
  • On Feb. 9, Aiello and Pekmez were screened by the committee a second time, as Aiello was later informed that her initial endorsement was just a recommendation from the Executive Committee. Aiello claims that during the screening, Pekmez’s statement to the committee only had one concrete proposal, which was a proposal for a community center. The First District Committee voted to endorse Pekmez for first district councilor.

The $200,000 in ARPA funding for the first district ended up going toward improvements to Liberty Bell Park, Franklin Square Alley and Mini Hanna Park. According to a press release sent from Utica Mayor Robert Palmieri’s office on Sept. 22, 2022, the decision to allocate the funds to those three projects was made “after extensive meetings with constituents who expressed the funds be spent on a community-minded project that would enhance the family-friendly aspects of the district.”

Throughout Aiello’s timeline, she also provides social media posts from both Pekmez and Pelli encouraging people to lobby their councilors for ARPA funding, as well as providing their various accusations against Aiello, which Aiello has denied.

“Some people would say there are two sides to this story, that’s true, but mine’s the only side with proof,” Aiello said. “It’s wild, the attacks they have been throwing. They’re outright lies and they should know that. I believe they do know that ... They don’t have proof for anything, so I ask the public, if they say something, say ‘show me’ because I’m going to provide that and I have been from day one.”

Upon bringing up her allegations to the Utica Democratic Committee, Aiello stated that the committee declined to investigate. She hopes that the committee won’t remain silent regarding the allegations and hopes to seek answers on whether the committee supports cash gifts to elected officials and why the committee would endorse a candidate who, in Aiello’s words, was “very careless about the moral implications of taxpayer dollars.”

“The bigger issue now is the committee and what they’re doing and why, and the people that have nothing to say on that,” Aiello said. “We’re in a time where people are losing complete trust in their government and this is just another nail in the coffin.”

Pelli’s response

While Aiello has stated that she never said Pelli’s $500 donation was a bribe, Pelli has claimed otherwise and has vehemently denied that his donation towards her business was a bribe in order to influence her decision to allocate ARPA funding toward his building.

“Ms. Katie Aiello is making very false claims against myself, friends, and chair members,” Pelli alleges. “Her latest attack against me was to go on social media and claim I bribed her, which could not be further from the truth. The ‘bribe’ she is referring to was over a year ago in which I left a monetary donation to ‘pay it forward’ to any patron who walked into her coffee shop ... I have been very blessed through hard work and like to give back to the community any way I can.”

“I find it very disheartening that Katie continues to try to muddy the water with voters as her only tactic to try and win rather than face the issues of the constituents,” Pelli added.


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