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PANEL LIKELY TO BACK PATTON FOR WATER AUTHORITY

Democratic leaders in the County Legislature today said they have seven signatures -- one more than they need -- to nominate Mark G. Patton for another three-year term as Democratic commissioner on the Erie County Water Authority.

Republicans say they will support Patton if he has Democratic backing.

This appears to end a contentious struggle among Democrats that resulted in the nomination of a rival, Timothy Clark, who had union support.

Party leaders need six votes, a "majority of the majority," to nominate the commissioner.

The agenda for Thursday's Legislature meeting provides a communication from Legislature Clerk Laurie D. Manzella stating that there will be a vacancy April 27 for water commissioner. It would provide an opening for Legislature Chairman Charles M. Swanick, D-Kenmore, to make the nomination.

"Chuck will amend it on the floor with a petition and a letter to the Legislature clerk nominating Patton," said a Democratic spokesperson. He added that an effort to round up nine Democratic signatures is continuing, although it is unnecessary.

The Patton reappointment has the backing of Majority Leader Crystal D. Peoples, Michael A. Fitzpatrick, Judith P. Fisher and George A. Holt Jr., all of Buffalo; Raymond K. Dusza, Cheektowaga; Lynn M. Marinelli, Town of Tonawanda, and Swanick.

"I circulated the petition for a while," said Fitzpatrick, who said the nomination is secure. "Chuck is circulating it now."

If Swanick does not present the nomination, Patton will automatically hold over.

Minority Leader Frederick J. Marshall, R-East Aurora, said that the Republicans on the Legislature will accept the choice of any six Democrats and provide the necessary votes for election.

"Each political party has looked at the other side's appointment as the other side's choice," Marshall said. "We will not interfere. If a majority of Democrats can decide on an appointee, as long as that appointee is qualified, we will vote to confirm."

Both Patton and Clark, who was the candidate of Legislator Gregory B. Olma, D-Buffalo, meet basic qualifications for the commissioner job, Marshall said. County law gives the majority of the Legislature two commissioner appointments and the minority one. The terms of the three commissioners are staggered so that one expires each year. A commissioner receives a free car and gasoline and $22,500 a year. Legislators seek jobs for their supporters from the commissioner of their party.

Patton, owner of Contour Erection & Siding Systems Inc., is a former business partner of Fitzpatrick, a statewide leader of the Ironworkers union.

Clark managed the unsuccessful 1996 campaign of Thomas Fricano, regional director of the United Auto Workers union, to unseat Rep. Bill Paxon, R-Amherst.

"I understand Mr. Fricano is not happy," said Marshall. "We regard that as an intra-party squabble. We are going to decline to get involved."

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