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TOP CITY OFFICIALS AT ODDS BEFORE CHARTER PANEL

Buffalo's three top elected officials clashed Thursday over the role of Common Council and other major governmental issues during opening appearances before the city's Charter Revision Commission.

How many Council members should there be, and what should be their job?

Which officials should oversee the Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corp. and other City Hall development companies?

Mayor Masiello, City Comptroller Joel A. Giambra and Council President James W. Pitts appeared separately during a two-hour charter commission meeting, each one offering a different vision of Buffalo's future government.

The tight agenda offered some frustrated commission members no chance for follow-up questioning, but Chairman James L. Magavern assured them the officials will be called back soon -- perhaps as early as next month -- to discuss their detailed suggestions.

"We heard some very healthy debate on some very important issues . . . by some very articulate spokesmen," Magavern said later.

Many suggestions, including proposals to cut the Council's size by as many as four or more seats, already have surfaced in neighborhood meetings conducted by the commission.

However, according to Magavern, members also realized that these meetings drew a heavy attendance from neighborhood activists, and they hope to reach out to a wider audience.

The session Thursday also provided the first forum for all three top city officials to present their suggestions.

Masiello, who has emphasized a nonpartisan approach to changing the 70-year-old City Charter, led off the meeting by saying he would defer any remarks about the size of the Council in order to give the commission a chance to make up its own mind on the controversial issue.

"At this relatively early stage . . . any recommendation that I make . . . will act as a catalyst for groups to line up against the Charter Commission," Masiello said. "I don't want to inhibit the commission's ability to move forward or . . . jeopardize its success."

Giambra and Pitts directly conflicted. Pitts advised the commission to leave intact the present size and role of the Council, while Giambra favored eliminating the Council president's office as it now exists and consolidating the city's nine Council districts into five.

For his part, Masiello said he favored continuing to have an elected Council president and Council members serve as unofficial government ombudsmen for their constituents.

Masiello also sought to dispel long-standing criticism from Pitts and others about the role of City Hall corporations and other shadow government agencies.

"This is not a charter issue . . . I want to dispel the notion that there is no oversight or accountability," he said.

For his part, Pitts generally defended the charter, calling it "a good one," and suggesting that the commission should only make necessary small, "very specific" changes in the document.

"Our charter's a very good one. It is not obsolete," Pitts insisted.

But, according to Giambra, the commission should concentrate on preparing Buffalo for downsizing and consolidating city government with county government, a constant theme for him.

"We have to change because the times require it . . . It's time now that we stop trying to protect the status quo because the status quo doesn't work," he said following the meeting.

In his presentation, Giambra urged commission members to consider charter change that would:

Require Buffalo officials annually to seek ways to consolidate city and County government.

Give elected officials "maximum flexibility" to decide how to administer services to taxpayers, rather than tie their hands by prescribing minute details of the city's internal governmental structure.

Provide voters the option of eliminating the city comptroller's office and allowing its work to be assumed by other city departments, with oversight by the Erie County comptroller's office.

Change the size and mission of Common Council, including its role as "a collection of ombudsmen" for city residents.

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