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DEMOCRATIC DECISION ON COMMISSIONER POST FOR COUNTY WATER AUTHORITY AWASH IN POLITICS

Erie County's Democratic lawmakers don't appear to be any closer to deciding on an appointment to a soon-to-be vacant commissioner's post on the board of the Erie County Water Authority.

In separate interviews Monday, a panel of Legislators heard from the two top Democratic contenders for the part-time post, which pays $22,500 and provides a car.

Incumbent Mark Patton, a former ironworker and co-owner of a steel-erector company, pointed to his business background as helpful in bringing much-needed fiscal reform to the authority since his appointment as commissioner two years ago. Patton said he and the other two commissioners planned to market aggressively the Water Authority services to outlying towns in the region and someday, perhaps, take on the City of Buffalo as a customer.

Tim Clark, a former spokesman for both County Executive Gorski and former Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, also voiced his intentions to seek a further streamlining of authority operations and expand its service base.

Ultimately, politics will decide who gets the political plum.

In Patton's corner is his longtime friend and former business partner, Legislator Michael A.Fitzpatrick, D-Buffalo. Backing Clark is Legislator Gregory B. Olma, D-Buffalo. Olma is chairman of the Legislature's Energy and Environment Committee, which conducted Monday's hearing for water commissioner candidates.

Olma raised questions Monday about potential conflict-of-interest problems for Patton in the role of water commissioner, because he also heads a firm that bids on public projects and hires union workers. The assertion that Patton could become embroiled in such entanglements raised the anger of Patton supporters, including Fitzpatrick and Majority Leader Crystal D. Peoples.

"You're looking for conspiracy theories that are not there," Ms. Peoples told Olma.

Legislature Chairman Charles M. Swanick said Olma's tactics would end up scaring away qualified businessmen from public service. Swanick, who has not publicly committed to either candidate, lauded Patton's business sense and integrity.

Patton's two-year term as commissioner expires in late April, but he could be held over indefinitely if the Democrats remain divided. State law requires that a majority of the majority party -- six of the 10 Democrats -- agree on a choice.

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