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PATRONAGE DECISION GETS MIXED REACTION

A Supreme Court ruling Thursday that limits partisan hiring, transfer and promotion elicited some praise and some skepticism among local elected officials.

"I welcome the court decision if it means we're going to have a broad-based search for the best and brightest," North Council Member David P. Rutecki said. "It has to help the city."

But Rutecki, who said the majority of hirings in city government -- including the Common Council -- are based on political considerations, doubts any local impact until someone goes to court.

"When it will happen is when a well-equipped individual is not hired and a less qualified individual with political connections is hired," he said. "But this decision won't change how the mayor does things unless he's challenged."

Mayor Griffin could not be reached to comment.

Ellicott Council Member James W. Pitts said patronage will probably always be part of politics but the decision will help those who decide to challenge the practice.

"Any individual who was skipped over or lost a position when there was a change in the powers that be will have the power to challenge that situation," he said.

County Executive Gorski, who like the others had only heard reports of the ruling and not read the decision, said it is unrealistic to force office holders and officials to accept staffers who aren't "part of the team."

"I'd probably be sitting here in my office with my predecessor's department heads ignoring my directives," he said. "If they were frozen into the job, they'd have no incentive to make the administration a success."

But the court's 5-4 decision said patronage may play a role in employment decisions when political affiliation is an appropriate requirement for carrying out a job, such as a high-level policy adviser. That would seem to meet Gorski's objection.

County Personnel Commissioner Richard A. Slisz said that of the 8,000 jobs in Erie County government, only about 100 could be considered patronage slots. "We're far from a patronage mill," he said.

County Legislature Majority Leader Mary Lou Rath, R-Williamsville, also defended the county's hiring practices.

"We watch very carefully the hiring and firing of employees," she said. "I don't think we need a change of the rules to assure the taxpayer we are selecting the best candidates for the job."

Interim City Comptroller Joel A. Giambra, who is seeking election this fall to fill out the remainder of that term, praised the court's ruling, while complaining his campaign is already provoking pressures associated with patronage.

"People who work for the Griffin administration have been told if they're caught circulating petitions or working on behalf of my candidacy, they'll suffer grave consequences," he said. "I think it's good policy that the courts are trying to limit political influence on promotions or holding jobs."

Union leaders in Albany said political patronage is sometimes the reason competitive exams are not given and "temporary" jobs go to political favorites.

"Over the years we've found that the political trough gets wider and deeper," said Ron Kermani, spokesman for the Public Employees Federation. "Anyone who has worked in government is aware that, unfortunately, political patronage is the engine that drives the top-level machinery of any agency or department."

Jon R. Sorensen of The News Albany Bureau and News Staff Reporters Carolyn Raeke and Jacquennette Geggus contributed to this story.

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