After his reappointment to the powerful Erie County Water Authority on Thursday, Mark G. Patton made the gesture of mockery that has become traditional for returning commissioners:
He passed out fine cigars to male members of the County Legislature and boxes of chocolate to female legislators.
But for Patton, that mocking gesture served two purposes: It was both a joke referring to the relatively easy time he had getting reappointed and a symbolic swipe at the former commissioner who sought to replace him, George F. Hasiotis -- who owns a chocolate shop.
"I was surprised," Patton said of the 16-1 vote by which he was reappointed to a three-year term ending in 2004. "I just didn't want to have controversy involved. If I was going to have the support, fine. If not, I was going to move on. I'm a businessman. I approach these things in a businesslike manner."
Water commissioners are paid $22,500 a year and receive use of a car. Patton is one of three; the other two are Acea M. Mosey-Pawlowski and Robert J. Lichtenthal Jr.
In addition to the compensation, the three posts are viewed as desirable because the Water Authority is rich in patronage and the positions carry considerable political clout.
Patton was supported Thursday by majority Democrats in the Legislature, with the exception of Gregory B. Olma of Buffalo. Republicans voted for Patton because he was the Democratic side's appointee to the authority and they did not want to interfere with the Democrats' choice. Patton has been a commissioner since 1996.
Olma said he opposed Patton because there was never any review of the three commissioner posts -- and their levels of compensation -- as requested by County Executive Joel A. Giambra last summer. At that time, Legislature Chairman Charles M. Swanick, D-Kenmore, said he was "more than willing" to talk about
ideas for reforming the authority. But no review or discussion of reforms ever took place.
"They could easily have done (the review)," Olma said. "The commissioner's appointment doesn't expire until April. It's all talk, and there is no reform. The authority is back to where we started -- it's the fiefdom of political party bosses."
During the Legislature session Thursday, Olma tried to replace the measure on Patton's reappointment with a piece of legislation calling for a review of the Water Authority. Swanick did not allow him to speak.
"It's a travesty the way they refuse to allow debate," Olma said.
Patton, an Orchard Park resident who owns a construction company, said he is pleased to be returned to the board because the authority is working on a "full agenda" of initiatives. Many regionalism initiatives are among those agenda items, he said.
"The time is now. The moment is here" for regionalism, Patton said.
Patton said he and Giambra recently had a sit-down discussion -- their first ever -- and will continue to work well together in the future.
"We found a lot of mutual ground," he said.