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A proposal to abolish the City of Tonawanda's Civil Service Commission, which serves as a watchdog over city hiring, has sparked a particularly bitter controversy.

If approved by voters Nov. 5, Proposition 1 will shift the commission's duties to the county Personnel Department, which already handles those functions for the county's towns, villages and most of its school districts.

Approval of the proposition would make Tonawanda the first city in the county to eliminate its civil service commission and the 14th, including North Tonawanda, statewide.

Proposition 1, championed by 3rd Ward Alderwoman Gayle Syposs, is touted as a way for the financially troubled city to save the $16,235 now budgeted for the commission.

"We need to save every penny we can," she said, noting that the city is trying to scrape together funds to retore its aged streets and sewers.

One of Mrs. Syposs' sons works on a city recycling truck and another at one point held a part-time city job. "It's a small city. Almost everyone is related," she said. Critics, however, think the Common Council will engage in more nepotism and political patronage if freed from civil service scrutiny.

"The savings are so small from this. It can't be (motivated by) money," said Tom Stryker, chairman of the city's Civil Service Commission. "There has to be another agenda."

He said the county will provide neither the personal attention nor the watchdog function offered by his office.

He added that handing civil service duties to the county will require applicants to travel to Buffalo to take tests.

Appointed by the mayor, the three-member commission, which is assisted by a part-time executive secretary, administers the tests required to be eligible for most city jobs.

It also makes sure the city follows hiring requirements and that job descriptions and specifications meet state rules. Hiring for the Tonawanda School District also is handled by the panel.

County Personnel Commissioner Leonard R. Lenihan said job requirements and descriptions are largely set by the state, and neither the county nor the city could tamper with jobs without incurring Albany's wrath.

Still, some opponents of Proposition 1 suspect it is payback for a flap late last summer that prevented another relative of Mrs. Syposs from getting a city dispatcher's job.

Police Chief Ed Ringer decided to hire two part-time dispatchers. Ringer said Mrs. Syposs' former daughter-in-law had come in to interview for a a part-time job as a crossing guard or matron, but she had 911 experience, which made her a perfect candidate for the dispatcher job.

Ringer wanted to hire her -- a decision that he and Mrs. Syposs both said involved no political interference. But when the commission found out, it informed him the position could be filled only by a candidate from the civil-service hiring list.

Mrs. Syposs denies the incident prompted her to propose dismantling the commission a few months later. She said the idea has been discussed on and off for years. This time, she said, Norm Stocker, the Town of Tonawanda's personnel chief, who is conducting a management study for the city, suggested the move as a way to save money.

"I'm telling you, that's all there is to it," she said. "This is nothing more than an attempt to reduce expenditures."

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