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PANEL OFFERS RULES CHANGES TO DIMINISH DEMOCRATIC LEADERS' POWERS

An ad hoc committee of the Erie County Democratic Committee has recommended rules changes that would sharply diminish the powers of the party's chairman and its executive committee.

Sponsors of the changes claim they would make the party organization more responsive to grass-roots members.

But a minority report warns some of the proposed revisions are impractical and would so dilute the authority of the county chairman that the party would be left with no real direction.

Vincent J. Sorrentino, the Democratic county chairman who appointed the ad hoc committee about 19 months ago, said some of the recommended rules changes go too far. He has named another committee to review the majority and minority reports in an attempt to reconcile the two documents.

Sorrentino likened the party organization to a corporation, which he said needs a board of directors and a strong chief executive officer. Some of the majority report recommendations for the Democratic Party would "let the stockholder make every major decision, instead of the board of directors," Sorrentino said.

The majority report was submitted by Dennis E. Ward, an attorney and chairman of the ad hoc committee.

"It would make for a more democratic Democratic Party," Ward said of the proposed rules changes, one of which would strip the executive committee of its power to endorse candidates for major public offices, except for judges.

Ward said adoption of the new rules would result in the "empowerment" of members of the Democratic County Committee and make their jobs "more important and meaningful."

One of the proposed rules changes would transfer the power to endorse candidates for countywide office from the executive committee, which has about 45 members and is usually controlled by the chairman, to the Democratic County Committee, which at full strength has 2,276 members. An exception would be made for judicial candidates, who would continue to be endorsed by the executive committee.

Members of the County Committee are elected every two years in the primary election.

Candidates for citywide offices, including mayor, would be designated by the approximately 974 Democratic committee members in Buffalo. The endorsements now are made by the executive committee.

Ward said an endorsement made under the proposed rules changes would come "from the grass roots and a more open process." In the long run, the process would enhance the value of an endorsement," he asserted.

Hope Hoetzer Cook, a zone leader, executive committee member and member of the ad hoc committee, drafted the minority report, which argues for the retention of a strong chairman and executive committee.

"The minority views the 'fairness issues' as proposed by the majority to be theoretical concepts that are abstract and isolated from the concrete goals of the party," wrote Mrs. Cook, who warned that the changes would strip party leaders of their ability to lead.

Ironically, some of the more controversial recommendations were adopted by the ad hoc committee through a coalition of supporters of Mayor Griffin and the reform-minded Frontier Democratic Club.

The Frontier Democratic Club, of which Ward is a member, was founded several years ago with an agenda that included the defeat of Griffin as mayor, the ouster of Joseph F. Crangle as Democratic county chairman and reform of the party rules. Crangle relinquished the chairmanship in 1988 after holding the office for more than 23 years.

Among changes recommended in the ad hoc committee's majority report are rules that would:

Give grass-roots committee members in a political subdivision the power to endorse candidates for public office in their jurisdictions, a function now performed for most major offices by the executive committee.

Scrap the practice of filling vacancies on the County Committee at the biennial reorganization meeting of the committee. Instead, the vacancies would have to be filled by the zone and town committees in which they occur. And none could be filled between the date of the primary election and the reorganization meeting of the County Committee.

Reduce the number of appointments the chairman can make to the executive committee. The proposed changes call for committee members in Buffalo councilmanic districts and in the suburbs to designate their own executive committee representatives, a choice now largely made for them by the county chairman. Mandate that zone boundaries in Buffalo be contiguous, respect neighborhood and ethnic considerations and be as equal as possible in terms of numbers of enrolled Democrats. The change provides that zone lines, once drawn, be left intact for at least six years. The executive committee now has the power to redraw the lines at will.

Transfer from the executive committee to the county committee the authority to make and change rules, regulations and bylaws governing zone and town committees. The minority report claims the final decision on rules already rests with the County Committee. However, the minority report would have the executive committee retain its power to make, amend and delete rules not now included in the bylaws.

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