Local government reorganization meetings usher in new eras - The Buffalo News
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Local government reorganization meetings usher in new eras

They unfold amid pomp and ceremony, in ornate chambers of grand fortresses like Buffalo City Hall and Erie County Hall.

The annual rituals of reorganization meetings fulfill charter mandates to anoint leaders and begin the work of government for the Common Council, County Legislature, and major suburban strongholds like Hamburg and Orchard Park. And they satisfy mundane requirements like promoting supporters, firing opponents, and providing new and bigger offices for victors claiming their spoils.

But this year the spate of reorganization meetings around Erie County represents much more.

In City Hall the Thursday election of Darius G. Pridgen as Council president signals not only potential for an unprecedented era of political cooperation, but focuses on the Ellicott Council member as a future mayor as well.

Around the corner at County Hall, a Thursday ceremony awarded the chairman’s gavel to a Republican in a true majority for the first time in more than 30 years. That means Democratic County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz faces the unfamiliar phenomenon of a legislative check and balance, while new Legislature Chairman John J. Mills promises to run Erie County “like a business.”

Reorganization meetings also ushered in new eras in Orchard Park with Supervisor Patrick J. Keem and the City of Tonawanda with Mayor Rick Davis, while the Hamburg Town Board features new members amid familiar bickering.

For veteran observers of politics like former Common Council President George K. Arthur, reorganization meetings offer clues – sometimes obvious, sometimes subtle – on the course of government for the new year. Pridgen’s unanimous selection by the Council as its new president, for example, demonstrates the pastor of True Bethel Baptist Church holds sway over his Council flock too.

“It tells you that, to a great extent, maybe the infighting and differences of the Council could be over,” Arthur said, noting Pridgen’s ability to coalesce unanimous backing for his candidacy.

Indeed, Pridgen’s election at Thursday’s reorganization is focusing the most attention on the Council presidency since charter revision removed the position from the citywide ballot in 2002, leaving it to the Council to elect its own leader. In the past, Council presidents like Arthur – who ran citywide for the post – usually emerged as more visible and well-known city officials.

So for the first time in many years, real scrutiny now focuses on Pridgen and the Council presidency as speculation swirls around the future of Mayor Byron W. Brown. Several reports pose the possibility that Lt. Gov. Robert J. Duffy may not run for re-election with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in November, listing the mayor of New York’s second-largest city as a potential replacement for the ticket’s second spot.

Pridgen this week dismissed any notion that his sudden ascension to Council president stems from a desire to become acting mayor should Brown resign (absent any other Council appointment of an acting mayor).

“Absolutely not,” he replied when asked if a potential mayoral vacancy motivated his latest effort. “I feel privileged to be able to serve in whatever position – even dog catcher. This is not about hopes of stepping into a new office.

“If opportunities arose, we would consider it at that time,” he added.

Instead, Pridgen said, he will concentrate his efforts on embracing new technology to expand Council proceedings to a wider audience.

“I’m very interested in exposing the Council to doing business with more technology that allows us to be quicker, more efficient, and a lot more transparent,” he said, adding he can embrace any potential change short of changing the “architecture of our Chambers.”

City Hall insiders point out Pridgen also will control hiring for a host of positions, while former Council President Richard A. Fontana now must relinquish to him his big Council president’s office in City Hall.

The meeting installing Mills as Legislature chairman, however, may symbolize the most radical change. A Republican at the legislative rostrum has been a rare sight in recent decades, and Mills makes no secret of his desire to stamp “GOP” on county government. Already, Mills said, he has hired a former banker for his staff to monitor the county’s $1.4 billion budget.

“We’ll do more scrutiny with department heads, ask for more information on a monthly basis and keep a handle on what’s going to develop,” he said. “Not only will we have a Republican philosophy, we’ll have a business philosophy. And it will be necessary to convince others in the Legislature to adopt that philosophy.”

Visible changes are already under way. Republican staffers are moving into bigger offices like the one formerly occupied by Jeremy J. Zellner, the Legislature chief of staff who said he was resigning to concentrate on his other job as Erie County Democratic chairman. While Zellner said he had long planned the move, other sources in the Legislature say his exit from County Hall is a natural result of a GOP takeover.

Mills noted that Legislator Lynn M. Marinelli, D-Town of Tonawanda, was among those “lecturing” him during reorganization ceremonies Thursday about his obligations to a significant urban and suburban population of Erie County.

“OK, Lynn,” he reacted later.

But Mills said his main hope is to avoid the perception of paralysis conveyed by the federal government in Washington and to instead notch real accomplishments. He pointed to Democratic Legislator Thomas A. Loughran of Amherst joining with Republicans last year to block a Poloncarz-proposed tax hike as an example of the kind of cooperation he seeks.

“I’m hoping we’ll work together to express our philosophy of stabilizing taxes and services,” he said.

The ritual of reorganization also has dipped into town halls throughout the area. In Orchard Park, Keem takes over for Democrat Janis A. Colarusso, and sounded a lot like Mills in aiming to provide services at the lowest possible tax rate. He also called for transparency and accountability in his office.

Keem said he spent Friday individually greeting Town Hall workers to set the tone for his new administration. And he said he and other Republican Council members will make their appointments based on ability and not on politics.

“If they’re doing their job right, they’ll be appointed,” he said. “That’s the main tone we’re setting.”

The new supervisor also said he will stress “teamwork” as a guiding principle of an administration he hopes will concentrate on delivering quality services at the lowest possible cost.

“We want to be held accountable,” he said, adding he also will seek a transparency that will discourage an “executive session board.”

Hamburg Supervisor Steven J. Walters Sr., meanwhile, has yet to join in the annual celebration of government continuity. The Republican has not even slated his reorganization, blaming two new Democratic Council members because “they were not ready.”

Now all eyes in Hamburg will be on their new Council and supervisor, when the reorganization meeting is finally scheduled, especially after a 2013 filled with controversy and bickering.

email: rmccarthy@buffnews.com

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