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The County Fair!

Political sideshows and carnival games in the Erie County Legislature

At Tuesday’s meeting of the Erie County Legislature’s Government Affairs Committee, one seemingly non-controversial item with bipartisan support actually recalled the unsettled and contentious current state of county government. Titled “Changing the Veto Timetable in the Erie County Charter,” this item addressed the brief period the charter allows for overriding a county executive’s vetoes.

Kenmore Republican Kevin Hardwick briefly spoke in favor, asking, in December, “We had, what, 36 hours to vote on an override?” In fact, in that vote Hardwick had repudiated his previous votes in support of the Democratic majority’s restoration of executive Chris Collins’ severe cuts to the library system, 39 cultural groups, and Erie County Comptroller Mark Poloncarz’s office. He voted against a veto override, apparently out of political expedience. It was hard to see how giving him more time to consider would have changed the result.

Collins has regularly commanded a nine-vote majority in clinch situations: six Republications and three break-away Democrats. “We’ll probably need three months between a veto and an override vote,” Hardwick quipped, alluding to the legal case lodged in state Supreme Court, as Collins appeals a decision from last month that said he can’t unilaterally nullify legislators’ cuts to his budget.

This case exemplifies the unfinished mess that remains after last year’s budgetary tug-of-war. Thursday, Polancarz sent a letter to Martin A. Polowy in the county attorney’s office, pointing out to him that since Collins had vetoed the legislators’ reallocations of funds in his budget but couldn’t legally alter their cuts, there were 16 dispatchers employed in the Sheriff’s Department in “phantom” positions. How, he asked, can the county “legally employ individuals…if the positions they are working in do not exist…?”

Perhaps out of tact, Poloncarz didn’t mention that there is now also no salary line for a county attorney (the position is vacant) because the legislators cut the 50 percent increase in salary Collins proposed and he vetoed their restoration of the original figure. Another standoff.

These are only a small part of the less-talked-about political struggle in the county. If the nine Democratic legislators usually voted as a bloc, this warfare between the legislative and executive branches couldn’t have had such an impact on county government. But three of those nine—Chairwoman Barbara Miller-Williams, West Seneca’s Christina Bové, and South Buffalo member Tim Whalen—regularly go over to the other side. Miller-Williams owes her position to Collins and his Republicans. The result, according to Buffalo Democratic member Betty Jean Grant, is that the chairwoman “marches at the direction of Chris Collins, and she’s rewarded for it.”

Evidence of how this works, a number of informed observers say, is offered by Miller-Williams’ recent firing of majority counsel Jennifer Persico and the hiring of Shawn Martin as a replacement. A former West Seneca town attorney, Martin is an ally of Bové. Cheektowaga Democratic Thomas Mazur, who ran for the chairmanship himself, says you only have to look at the disposition of legislative staffing to see the pattern. The jobs go to people from certain suburbs and limited areas of Buffalo. “When Miller-Williams came in, she cleaned house,” he says.

Another prominent and slightly strange aspect of this divvying up of spoils is the belief among many in and out of the legislature that several weeks ago Miller-Williams wanted to replace Robert Graber, the legislature’s widely respected clerk, with former state senator Antoine Thompson, who was defeated for reelection in November. She vehemently denies even discussing this matter with anyone, but some people believe she couldn’t get the necessary Republican votes to effect this change. And it’s probably worth remembering that she and Thompson come from the same political milieu and belong to the same camp. And that grouping, led by Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown, is engaged in a civil war for party control. It’s this struggle, more than anything else, that explains the votes in the legislature and the regular success Collins has had in stymieing that body’s six remaining Democratic members, who are generally allied with party chair Leonard Lenihan, the man the mayor wants to displace. Brown and Collins have, in effect, formed a cooperative arrangement in which each gets to pursue some of his own political ends.

“Brown wants Lenihan to fail at any cost,” Grant says. “There’s a [Congressman Brian] Higgins-Brown-Collins agenda in the legislature.” Brown, she and others say, wants to replace Lenihan with Erie County Water Authority Commissioner Jack O’Donnell, a part of former party chair Steve Pigeon’s political axis, a group that wants to return to power.

Former county legislator and veteran student of local politics Greg Olma says Higgins, for one, has benefited from Republican Chairman Nick Langworthy’s discouragement of any substantial Republican challenge to Higgins’ recent reelection efforts. Olma unfavorably compares the present situation with his time in the legislature: “We weren’t perfect; there was patronage and pork. But we fought for policy goals and public benefits. Now it’s mostly grudge and infighting.”

And that fighting is about to get even worse. In November, county voters approved a referendum reducing the legislature from 15 to 11. This measure bids fair to increase political bloodletting, and it’s hard to see how it helps most of the voters who supported it. Even on the basis of arithmetic, it’s dubious. In this region, for example, both Niagara and Monroe Counties have larger legislatures and smaller populations. (Niagara does lack an executive.)

Racially, it seems likely to increase divisions and resentments. Olma doesn’t see how it will be possible to retain both heavily black districts in this downsizing. Henry Taylor, Director of the Center for Urban Studies at the University at Buffalo, says, “Latinos may have to lose hope of [legislative] representation.” Racial, ethnic, and class composition of a legislative body will impact how investments and disbursements are made, he says. “The discrimination doesn’t even have to be intentional.” And there’s neither a need for it nor any solution to area problems in this reduction. There are no reliable data or analyses showing smaller government is better, he observed. “It’s an illusion, a road to nowhere,” he says. “Does anyone seriously believe that having fewer Common Council members has made Buffalo a better place to live?”

One likely beneficiary is the county executive. It will become more difficult to assemble a super-majority to override an executive veto (eight out of 11, or 73 percent, rather than the present nine, which is an even two-thirds). Lynn Marinelli (Democrat, Tonawanda), a former chairwoman, says that the larger resulting districts will require more money to run in, and will therefore favor wealthier interests rather than those of more modest means.

In sum, it looks like another outcome in which voters have unintentionally shot themselves in their collective foot.

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