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Smith to fill vacant Masten council seat

Since the first day his name surfaced, Erie County Legislator Demone A. Smith was considered the favorite to be appointed to a vacant Common Council seat.

Not so fast, said some city lawmakers, whose job it is to fill vacancies. They noted that voters overwhelmingly approved a referendum in November to create a more open process -- one that supporters insist won't be controlled by the backroom dealings of political party bosses.

The city followed the new process as officials moved to fill the vacant Masten District seat. It advertised the job on its Web site and on a cable television public-access channel. It solicited resumes and received responses from five eligible candidates. The Council even took the process a step further, holding public job interviews -- sessions that were aired on government-access television.

The Council met in special session Friday to pick a successor to Antoine M. Thompson, who became a state senator. With no floor debate, lawmakers unanimously appointed Smith to fill the post for the remaining year.

A week earlier, Democratic party leaders in the Masten District overwhelmingly endorsed Smith, who has strong ties to the Grassroots political club and served as Byron W. Brown's chief of staff when Brown, now mayor, was Masten Council member.

Did the process really change?

"Absolutely," insisted South Council Member Michael P. Kearns, who championed the referendum. "I think the decision was much harder than it appeared today."

Kearns claims he struggled with his vote, saying a few candidates had made strong impressions during the interviews. In the end, he said he concluded that Smith had the "strongest resume."

The other applicants were Melissa R.H. Brown, John E. Hemphill, Leon M. Hicks and Terrence A. Robinson.

Some are weighing a possible challenge to Smith in a Democratic primary. Hicks, a legislative assistant to Lovejoy Council Member Richard A. Fontana, said he definitely plans to run in a September primary. But Hicks said he considered the screening process fair "for the most part," adding that he thinks most lawmakers kept an open mind.

About 50 people attended Smith's swearing-in ceremonies in Council Chambers. City Judge Craig D. Hannah administered the oath of office. Hannah said he had met Smith many years ago during a cleanup in the Masten District.

"The man's work ethic has been without equal," Hannah said of Smith, who started the $52,000-a-year job Friday. County legislators earn $42,588 a year.

Smith's arrival in the Council creates a vacancy in County Hall, where Smith has represented the 7th District since he was appointed in 2003 to serve the remainder of Crystal D. Peoples' term following her election to the Assembly.

Leonard R. Lenihan, chairman of the Erie County Democratic Party, said Friday that 7th District committee members will meet within 30 days to recommend Smith's successor. Historically, the Legislature has followed such advice.

Lenihan said Betty Jean Grant, a former University Council member who represents the Ferry District on the Buffalo Board of Education, is seeking the nod.

Includes reporting by News Political Reporter Robert J. McCarthy.


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