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OUTSIDE FORCES NOW INFLUENCE DECISION-MAKING AT ALL LEVELS

Consultants, lobbyists and attorneys play an increasingly influential role in decision-making at local, state and federal levels of government. We have seen them in action in key situations for decades; at times their activities are positive for the public good and at other times they serve only the ends of their clients.

Let's look at three situations, one now finalized and two still pending final determination, and see how these people played key roles in what affects all of us.

First, the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library. About a year ago, a consultant recommended reducing the system from 53 to 39 branches. The purpose ostensibly would be to upgrade the system by creating regional hub libraries and specialized branches.

The consulting firm noted the shortcomings in the facilities of many of the existing branch libraries in making its final recommendations. What was missing was recognition of the positive impact these branches have in the neighborhoods in which they are located.

The recommendation to close many of these branches would have an enormous negative impact on thousands of people. Branch libraries, no matter how small or poorly equipped, are still better than none. They serve constituencies that are much less likely to utilize library facilities that are a greater distance from their homes than the neighborhood branches.

Fortunately, it appears that library officials will not buy into all of the consultant's recommendations. The newly named library director says, "We have to fashion a plan that is what the community wants," and that it will be greatly influenced by 21 community meetings now under way.

The library system is one of our area's finest assets and to reduce its presence by consolidations would be doing a disservice to area residents.

Now let's look at another disturbing situation whose resolution is still pending. It involves the U.S. Supreme Court, and the case before it is another example of the litigious society in which we live, with lawsuits filed on virtually everything imaginable.

Brushing aside all the technicalities and legalisms involved, the case in question involves parental rights to rear their children free from governmental interference. Boiled down to basics, that's really what it's all about. Nothing else.

Grandparents who want the court to approve court-ordered visitation rights against the wishes of the parent filed the suit. No branch of government should have the power to interfere with parent-child relationships except in extreme cases of child abuse or other patently obvious serious endangerment to the child.

Once we have the precedent of a court-ordered arrangement, we endanger long-established familial relationships. Based on the questioning by the justices during a Jan. 13 hearing on the case, it appears that the Supreme Court will not grant the request of the grandparents to order visitation rights.

The third issue involves the role of a lobbyist and state legislation. It's a done deal, but the passage of the Health Care Reform Act of 2000 by the State Legislature is an interesting case study.

The legislation has a commendable social purpose, providing health insurance coverage for about 1 million of the state's uninsured residents, among many other highly important measures.

It was the manner in which this legislation was put together that is troubling. Agreement was reached Dec. 17 by the governor, the leaders of both houses of the Legislature and a health-care union leader, Dennis Rivera, who obviously was a lobbyist for the interests of the state's health-care employees.

It's astonishing that the state's top three elected officials would involve a lobbyist with a definite vested interest in these negotiations. I have to wonder how much of a role Rivera played in putting together the legislative package that requires the state's counties to pay 25 percent of the program's costs. It is estimated the cost to counties will amount to $350 million.

The role of the counties in contributing to the funding of this legislation was totally unexpected. One has to wonder if the package was more costly than anticipated and if the presence of the union lobbyist was a factor in this development? I am not saying this is so, but the involvement of a lobbyist in fashioning the legislation inevitably raises the question.

MURRAY B. LIGHT is the former editor of The Buffalo News.

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