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POLITICS FUEL BOARDS OF COLLEGES
CRITICS QUESTION SELECTION PROCESS

Paul Stasiak, the newest member of the Erie Community College board of trustees, is a different sort of college trustee.

On a board with deep political ties, Stasiak is unusual. He does not hold a top position in a local political party, as some of his colleagues do, nor does he work as a fund-raiser for any area elected officials.

And, most unusual of all, while Stasiak's organization has made some relatively modest political campaign donations -- he is president of the Niagara Frontier Automobile Dealers Association -- he personally doesn't make contributions to political candidates.

"I try not to mix politics with work. In the business I'm in, both personally and professionally, I don't want to have that branding," said Stasiak.

Stasiak is the only member of a governing body at Erie County's three public colleges -- ECC, the University at Buffalo and Buffalo State College -- who hasn't made a personal donation to a political party or candidate since 1997, according to a Buffalo News review of campaign contributions.

While the ECC board has come under heavy criticism for its political entanglements in recent years, The News review found the community college trustees overall gave far less to local, state and federal office-seekers than members of the UB or Buffalo State governing councils.

Jeremy M. Jacobs Sr., the chairman of the UB Council who also heads Delaware North Cos., is the biggest donor by far, contributing almost $160,000 since 1997, including money given through his privately held company.

"People that go into politics have a row to hoe. They need support from people who believe in causes. I'm lucky to be able to afford to believe in causes," Jacobs said.

The governor appoints the UB and Buffalo State councils and four members of the ECC board of trustees. The county executive appoints the other five members of ECC's board.

The News reviewed campaign donations for Buffalo mayor, Erie County executive and sheriff; State Senate, Assembly, gubernatorial and judicial races; and federal campaigns for Congress and the presidency.

It included donations dating to 1997 and counted those made in the trustee's name, a spouse's name or the name of the trustee's company.

The selection process

Politicians, college trustees and council members say that the appointment process works well and that the board members' political donations had nothing to do with their selection.

But critics wonder if this is the best way to pick council members, since they advise campus presidents and help select their successors.

Other states -- including Virginia, Kentucky and Massachusetts -- have advisory panels that develop a set of criteria for appointments to public college councils and make recommendations to the governor.

"What we need on public boards are the best and brightest, not just the most generous to political campaigns," said Tom Ingram, president of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, in Washington, D.C.

In response to criticism from ECC's accrediting agency, County Executive Joel A. Giambra named a panel headed by former UB President William R. Greiner to recommend his trustee appointees.

A similar panel for all State University of New York councils "would take away any question about whether these people are qualified or whether they get there because of contributions," said H. Carl McCall, the former state comptroller and co-chairman of the state Public Higher Education Conference Board.

Political pull?

Appointment to a college board is considered an honor, though the positions are unpaid.

The UB and Buffalo State councils generally have little say over the day-to-day operations of the school. Their chief responsibility is to select the president of the institution.

ECC trustees, however, are intimately involved in the management of the school, including making decisions on budget cuts, tuition increases and the fate of the suburban campuses.

The Middle States accrediting agency sharply criticized trustee appointments at ECC as driven by political considerations. Current ECC trustees include William A. Delmont, a leader of the Erie County Conservative Party; Raymond F. Gallagher, a former Democratic state senator; and Janet L. Vogtli, former vice chairwoman of the county Republican Party.

During the period examined, ECC trustees donated $52,837, led by $22,841 from Thomas H. Burton, a lawyer, The News found. Burton was first appointed in 1996 by former County Executive Dennis T. Gorski, but he since has given $5,150 to Giambra.

"I thought it was important to have access (to the county executive) on behalf of the college," said Burton, who now frequently clashes with Giambra.

Members of the UB Council, all Gov. George E. Pataki appointees, gave the most -- $381,829 since 1997 -- led by Jacobs at $158,690 and attorney Gerald S. Lippes at $80,725. Jacobs gave $17,000 to Pataki, and Lippes gave $25,500.

Their counterparts at Buffalo State gave $212,668. Businessman and developer Howard A. Zemsky, one of the newest members, contributed the most, $81,750. That includes $11,100 to Pataki.

"It's to try to support people who are supporting programs or principles or policies that are good for Western New York," said Zemsky, managing partner in a private equity firm in Buffalo.

Presidents' donations

The News also reviewed political donations by the school presidents.

Buffalo State College President Muriel A. Howard and Greiner, UB's president from 1991 to 2003, did not make any.

ECC President William J. Mariani donated $700, including $250 in 1998 to Brian M. Higgins, the newly elected member of Congress, and $100 in 2000 to Giambra. Higgins is a longtime friend, Mariani said.

In 2001, Mariani directed ECC's auxiliary services corporation to pay $225 for his ticket to Giambra's annual golf tournament. When a services corporation board member looked into the payment and complained, Mariani reimbursed the corporation.

Mariani said he assumed the golf tournament was for a charity, though the check was paid to "Friends of Joel A. Giambra," according to a copy of the check obtained by The News.

"You can tell how much influence that got me," said Mariani, who opposes Giambra's proposal to consolidate ECC.

Current UB President John B. Simpson made two donations totaling $1,250 in 1999, when he was provost and executive vice chancellor at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He gave $1,000 to Al Gore and $250 to Democratic Rep. Sam Farr, the local member of Congress in Santa Cruz.

"I did it as a private citizen because they were people I admired, and I wanted to support them," Simpson said.

Ties that bind?

All trustees said their political donations had nothing to do with their appointments. They say their involvement in the community or with that college were the biggest reasons.

Gerald C. Saxe, a member of the Buffalo State Council, and his wife, Kathleen, for example, have given nearly $38,000. That includes $8,015 to retiring Rep. Jack Quinn, R-Hamburg, and $7,000 to Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds, R-Clarence.

"Jack Quinn and Tom Reynolds are personal friends of mine. I've known them for a long time. I surely do believe in what each of them has done and contributed to this area," said Saxe, president of a corporate insurance firm owned by M&T Bank.

Trustees and council members also said the person who appointed them did not demand loyalty -- or future contributions -- in return for the appointment.

"Nobody from the governor's office has asked me to make a contribution to anybody," said Saxe, whom Pataki appointed seven years ago and now is being reappointed.

The governor doesn't take political donations into account when making appointments, said Todd E. Alhart, a Pataki spokesman.

Burton, the ECC trustee, said that to suggest there's no political element to board appointments "would be naive."

"However, the length of appointment (seven or eight years) in theory could isolate those appointees from day-to-day political pressure," he added.

But McCall and other critics said appointees to the SUNY and City University of New York boards -- which oversee the systems as a whole -- were too quick to accept budget cuts and tuition hikes from the governor.

"I don't think (the current system) gets the best people," said Roscoe C. Brown Jr., who joined McCall in seeking an advisory board and is director of the Center for Urban Education Policy at the CUNY Graduate Center. "It is an issue, and it needs to be raised again."

News researcher Andrew Bailey contributed to this report.
e-mail: swatson@buffnews.com

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