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Bill to curb county executive called strong Iannello's anti-patronage measure faces first test next week

An Erie County legislator says she has the votes needed to pass a law that limits a county executive's patronage powers.

The proposal would still require public approval in a referendum this November, and it must go through a public hearing, scheduled for 3 p.m. Wednesday on the fourth floor of Old County Hall.

Its main sponsor, Legislator Michele M. Iannello, D-Kenmore, says it will pass its first test when the Legislature meets at 2 p.m. Thursday.

Nine lawmakers have signed on to support the proposal; eight are needed for its approval in the 15-member Legislature. With one more vote of support, it will have the two-thirds majority required to override a county executive veto.

County Executive Joel A. Giambra has not publicly opposed the proposal, and it would not affect him, because he leaves office at the end of the year. But it was written after he rehired former Budget Director Joseph Passafiume under a personal services contract.

Passafiume was a 30-year county employee, a past president of the Government Finance Officers Association in New York and Giambra's first and only budget director when he retired for health reasons in September 2005, at the tail end of a budget crisis.

With Passafiume restless in retirement, Giambra welcomed him back as a volunteer and then hired him Feb. 1 under a six-month, $6,000 contract that circumvented two layers of oversight.

The state-appointed control board can refuse to fill existing county jobs and reject contracts worth $50,000 or more. The Legislature can reject contracts worth $10,000 or more. Both were powerless to affect a personal services contract worth just $6,000.

Iannello said she heard from citizens who were outraged that the Legislature could do nothing to counter Giambra's decision. So she and a core of other lawmakers proposed to change the County Charter, the rule book that lays out the balance of power between the Legislature and the executive.

As it stands now, lawmakers cannot delete spending authorized in a budget they have already approved unless the county executive goes along. The new law would let lawmakers delete a job or cancel a contract on their "own independent judgment."

County executives could still veto the Legislature's decision to delete a job or terminate a contract, and the Legislature can try to muster the votes to override the veto.

County executives have always enjoyed the right to place whomever they choose into certain managerial-confidential posts that fall outside civil service requirements. By pulling strings, they also can get their preferred people into civil service jobs.

While many taxpayers abhor the use of patronage, elected leaders tend to accept it as a logical extension of politics. Early next year, dozens of patronage jobs will be filled as a new county executive takes office.

Iannello said she sees the law as a safeguard against those hires that go beyond the pale.

The referendum would be Nov. 6, during this year's general election, so county lawmakers will be able to usher a reform-minded proposal to the voters alongside their re-election campaigns.


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