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Move to restrict staff changes irritates some on divided Council

Tensions escalated Wednesday on a divided Common Council when a plan was hatched to make hiring and firing key staff members more difficult for the new majority.

The sponsor cited rumors that new Council leaders plan to oust some top administrators and other employees in the city clerk's office and on the Council's central staff.

Dominic J. Bonifacio Jr., who will retire in five weeks as Niagara Council member, said he fears a faction unfriendly to Mayor Byron W. Brown plans to fire people for political reasons.

"We need to protect the integrity of the city clerk's office and central staff -- offices where people have done outstanding jobs," he said.

Bonifacio wants to change the law to require a two-thirds Council vote on staff appointments. The move would require the new five-member majority to win the support of a sixth lawmaker for such hirings.

But the man who is in line to become the Council's next majority leader branded the effort a "thinly veiled" political ploy by forces allied with Brown.

"It's a hard-line negotiating tactic being used by some to try to save political jobs," said Lovejoy Council Member Richard A. Fontana of Lovejoy. "It's clearly an effort to try to block the Council's reorganization plan."

Fontana didn't deny that a few individuals might lose their jobs under a plan that he says would make some operations more efficient. While not divulging details, Fontana said the new majority plans to cut the salaries of some posts and phase out others.

"We have too many chiefs and not enough Indians in some areas," Fontana said.

The Council directly controls 37 jobs. But Bonifacio said his City Charter change would apply to only about a dozen non-civil service positions because he still believes lawmakers have a right to hire aides in their own offices.

What about the argument that positions such as city clerk, the deputy clerks and Council chief of staff have always been political jobs and that changes in leadership sometimes triggered firings?

"Just because it was done in the past doesn't make it right," Bonifacio replied.

But Fontana questioned Bonifacio's timing, noting the lawmaker has served on the Council for eight years.

"If you want reform, you don't do it right as you're about to leave," he said. "He took part in this process for years."

Fontana also claimed Bonifacio's plan would need voter approval next year in a referendum, because it alters the Council's powers. But Alisa A. Lukasiewicz, the top attorney in City Hall, insisted the Council could revise its hiring powers without placing the matter on the ballot.

Fontana is part of a coalition that maintains it has the five votes needed to take control of the Council in January. The faction includes Fillmore Council Member David A. Franczyk, who would remain Council president. South Council Member Michael P. Kearns, who some view as a potential challenger to Brown in the 2009 mayoral race, would become president pro tempore. Delaware Council Member Michael J. LoCurto and incoming Niagara Council Member David Rivera round out the coalition.

Four other lawmakers are Brown allies. Fontana said he believes Bonifacio's "eleventh hour" push to impose new rules on hirings emanated from the Brown faction. Bonifacio, who has good relations with the mayor but is not generally viewed as a hard-line ally, denied his plan was the brainchild of Brown backers. He added that his plan might help end Council infighting.

"If the five [lawmakers in the new majority] need a sixth person for hirings, I think this would help bring the Council together as a team," Bonifacio said. "We need a more inclusive Council."


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