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Charter revision panel debates value of county manager post

No one denies politics and personalities played a role in Erie County's fiscal meltdown last year.

The disagreement, on full display Thursday, is over how to prevent that tale of failed leadership from repeating itself and whether a new county manager-type government is the answer.

"I don't believe that's the fix that's needed," Assembly Majority Leader Paul Tokasz, D-Cheektowaga, told the county's Charter Revision Commission. "A county executive and county manager seems redundant in my mind."

Tokasz, one of the region's most influential politicians, is the latest official to weigh in on the idea of a new type of county government, a government led by both an elected executive and an appointed manager.

The idea, first floated by County Executive Joel A. Giambra, has gained support among the 23 members of the Charter Revision Commission, and could be among the reforms they recommend to the County Legislature.

"This is not something we invented," said former University at Buffalo President William Greiner, a commission member who supports the proposal. "Government in this country has become big, big business. And we need to run that business efficiently."

Under the proposal, the county charter would be changed to allow for a county manager appointed by the executive with Legislature approval. The manager would have the power to draft budgets, issue revenue estimates,and hire and fire department heads, all duties now handled by the executive.

"It would subtract from the politics and personalities that were at the root of some of our failures," said M&T Bank Vice President Michael Zabel, a commission member.

More than any other proposal now before the commission, the notion of a county manager has provoked debate. Some members echo Tokasz's claim that the real problem last year was the people in charge, not the type of government they head.

"I don't think there's any problem with the structure," said Tokasz.

Several commission members challenged Tokasz and suggested a professional county manager could have tempered the influence of politics and personalities.

"Isn't it conceivable that partisan politics would have been substantially reduced [last year]?" asked attorney James L. Magavern, a commission member.

Some commission members have privately suggested that politics, the very thing they're trying to eliminate, is at the root of the opposition to a county manager-type of government. Democrats expect to take control of the county executive's office once Giambra, a Republican, leaves at the end of next year.

Legislature Chairwoman Lynn M. Marinelli, a Town of Tonawanda Democrat and possible candidate for county executive, acknowledged concerns about adding another layer of management to county government.

"I want to make sure this hybrid doesn't become a hydra," she said.

The final say on what happens with the county manager proposal rests with the County Legislature and, ultimately, the voters.


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