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It was back in 1996 that this column first disclosed the sure-fire, guaranteed method to measure the pulse of politics in Erie County.

And what was true in 1996 is true in 1998 -- just as it was in 1958 and will be in 2038. The best way to sniff this town's political winds is to wander over to the Erie County Water Authority.

Isn't the Water Authority supposed to be about filtration systems and water pumps, chlorine and clarity? Indeed, it is. But somehow, other agendas have crept in over the years. Equally important are perks and patronage -- who's in and who's out.

That's why the beginnings of another power struggle over the most lucrative patronage post in Erie County -- the part-time, $22,400-plus-a-car commissioner's job -- are once again proving so interesting.

A number of sources in the Erie County Legislature say there will be a brouhaha in the coming weeks over reappointing authority Chairman Mark Patton for another two years.

Patton, a close ally of veteran Legislator Mike Fitzpatrick, burst onto the political scene just two years ago when the Legislature voted to oust from the authority then-Democratic Chairman Jim Sorrentino and replace him with Patton. That signaled the end of the Sorrentino Era, not only at the Water Authority, but at Democratic Headquarters as well.

Patton, known for his influence in the construction industry more than the politics biz, is now a controversial figure in his own right -- not from anything of his own doing, but more from his association with the influential Fitzpatrick.

"What's missing here is the fact that Mark Patton has done a good job," laments Fitzpatrick. "But that's not the issue. The issue is Mike Fitzpatrick."

Taking on Fitzpatrick just a few short months ago would have been unthinkable. He was too close with powers like County Executive Gorski and Erie County Democratic Chairman Steve Pigeon.

But it's happening right now, and once again, Water Authority politics could signal some broader changes.

For now, though, the picture boils down to this: Some independent Democrats such as Legislator Greg Olma are moving furiously to replace Patton with West Seneca's Tim Clark, a longtime Democratic operative who has worked in the past for both Gorski and former Gov. Mario Cuomo.

Clark, the brother of West Seneca Supervisor Paul Clark, is well-known and respected. But differences from long ago make him no Gorski favorite. And as part of that West Seneca pocket of resistance to Pigeon, he's not Mr. Popularity at Democratic Headquarters either.

In addition, both Pigeon and Gorski have traditionally proven strong Fitzpatrick allies. It could even be said that Pigeon owes his chairmanship to Fitzpatrick, whose Water Authority maneuvers in 1996 ended up removing Sorrentino and paving the way for Patton -- and eventually Pigeon's chairmanship.

Olma agrees the issue is Fitzpatrick -- and the perception that he is too powerful.

"He's become a 900-pound gorilla, and he doesn't have the subtlety or character for this leadership role," Olma says. "If he's our go-to guy, we've got a problem."

Counters Fitzpatrick: "It just seems to me that, when it comes to Olma and (Legislator) Al DeBenedetti, everybody else is wrong. I've offered the olive branch on several occasions, and it's always just knocked out of my hand."

Still, the Clark initiative is moving in the Legislature. And though Pigeon has not yet warmed up to it, Clark and Olma say the appointment could be the price of peace among some restless troops. It could mean better relations with the West Seneca Dems who have never signed on with Pigeon, as well as key labor elements who are Clark allies and who also remain outside the Pigeon fold.

If that happens, the Water Authority and its machinations will once again prove the harbinger of how things eventually shake out in Erie County politics. And if it doesn't, it will foretell the fact that those recalcitrant elements will probably remain outside the fold.

Olma, meanwhile, who in the past talked about removing politics from the Water Authority, now acknowledges that's impossible. Even he seems to recognize that the authority and politics are one and the same in Erie County.

"I can justify it because there will always be politics involved with the Water Authority," Olma said, adding that his effort now is to remove the "myth of Mike Fitzpatrick."

The wily Fitzpatrick seems ready for the struggle.

"I've been here 22 years, and I've had some good teachers," he said. "If they get a win, it will be their first."

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