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As a rookie legislator in 1990, G. Steven Pigeon emerged as the Erie County Water Authority's toughest critic. He was the reformer, railing against excessive compensation for its commissioners and its control by political bosses.

But the story is different a decade later. Now the chairman of the Erie County Democratic Party is laying the groundwork for his own appointment to the plum post of Water Authority commissioner. The position comes with a $22,500 annual stipend and a car. As he simultaneously confronts a serious challenge to his party chairmanship, Pigeon says his move demonstrates the party's commitment to good government.

Others say it represents only a power grab to demonstrate his clout and cement his power as a dispenser of what insiders estimate as $1 million worth of patronage each year.

"That's a message Democrats in Erie County are rejecting," said County Clerk David J. Swarts, who is challenging Pigeon for the party chairmanship. "That's not a post for a party leader; it's for someone with a financial background."

"All of us in the party need to do more to improve the image of government," added Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, who has stayed neutral in the intraparty squabble. "Unfortunately, I think this sends the wrong message."

Pigeon makes no apologies for the role he now seeks. Just as he did years ago, he still claims that reform of the authority is his ultimate goal, and he cites his credentials and the advantages of political participation in a public body. He believes he has the County Legislature votes to win the appointment and defends his right to a post with a long history as a haven for party bosses.

"I have the qualifications to serve on the Water Authority," he said. "I was a top aide to a Cabinet secretary (Donna Shalala of the Department of Health and Human Service), I was a county legislator who led the reform of that agency, and I'm an attorney specializing in municipal government and finance.

"And I want it professionally run and managed," he added.

The authority has always commanded Pigeon's attention. As a county legislator, he waged an intense battle with former Erie County Democratic Chairman Joseph F. Crangle, who was also a Water Authority commissioner. He urged reduction of the stipend to $7,500, said party chiefs and politics had no place in such a critical operation, and charged that the authority was left to the "unreviewed mercy of the party chairmen."

"Even in the best of times, I believe it is bad policy for party chairmen to be in charge of any public authority," he said then. "The potential for abuse is just too great."

But Pigeon, who also earns $2,608 every two weeks as a counsel to the State Senate minority, has changed his mind. He believes now that a party chairman can make significant contributions to the authority while bettering the party, too.

"I was wrong 10 years ago when I said the chairman shouldn't be there," he said. "I've found since how much a chairman can do in obtaining grants, getting information and helping legislation be passed."

Pigeon said his 1980s battle with Crangle revolved around the former chairman's placement of "unqualified" people into authority jobs. He insists he will sponsor only competent workers but also says there is a place in the authority for the political process.

"I don't believe in creating jobs that aren't necessary," he said. "Yet I think it's important that people who work for political organizations -- if they are qualified -- be given extra consideration for a job."

Crangle declined to elaborate on Pigeon's charges, except to say that Pigeon's view of history is wrong.

"Historians have always cautioned about revisionists, and the New Testament is replete with the Lord's wrath toward hypocrisy," Crangle said.

Pigeon also did not cite Vincent J. Sorrentino, another former Democratic chairman serving with Crangle, who is now a Pigeon supporter. But he complains that no objections were raised when Robert J. Lichtenthal, a current commissioner, was appointed while serving as executive director of the Erie County Republican Party.

Still, Pigeon believes there is a place for a person with political connections. As a Water Authority commissioner, Pigeon said he would "be wrong" not to help a party worker when two applicants submit equally strong resumes.

"I don't think parties could function any other way," he said, adding that the influence he and Erie County Republican Chairman Robert E. Davis have wielded at the authority over the past several years has resulted only in competent and professional hiring.

"We believe as a philosophy in professional government," he said.

George F. Hasiotis, the West Seneca businessman Pigeon seeks to replace as a commissioner, is resisting Pigeon's move. Though connected to the political process as a fund raiser, he says it would be a step backward to name a political chairman.

"The public should be very, very concerned about a political party chairman," Hasiotis said, "because in the past, it has resulted in higher rates (through excessive patronage hires). The potential for conflict of interest is just too great."

Hasiotis claims the authority was "verging on bankruptcy" several years ago because it was managed by a long succession of party chairmen, or others closely associated with the political hierarchy. "My counsel to the Legislature would be that we can't afford to play politics with a public authority, because in the past the results have been too devastating," he said. Several sources close to the process say efforts were under way to make the appointment more palatable by including a Republican official as part of a "package deal." But Davis and GOP Vice Chairman Ralph J. Vanner have nixed the idea.

"We'll look for a business type, preferably someone with an engineering background," Vanner said recently. "It won't be a chairman or a vice chairman."

According to Pigeon, the process of naming him to the authority began earlier this month when Legislature Chairman Charles M. Swanick, D-Kenmore, circulated a petition among legislators to enlist their support and dispose of the issue before Hasiotis' term expires in April.

Swanick declined to discuss the matter and said only that the question of Hasiotis' seat would not be determined until May.

Already, legislators such as Raymond K. Dusza, D-Cheektowaga, have voiced support for Pigeon, but other Democrats such as Gregory B. Olma of Buffalo are wary.

"Part of the reason (former County Executive) Dennis Gorski lost is this kind of politics," Olma said. "This could be a defining vote for some of these people."

Although there are signs that many county legislators are being pressured by their constituents to vote against Pigeon, he says he will continue seeking the appointment. He says enough legislators will agree with his contention that involvement of a political chairman is actually a good thing.

"After losing Dennis Gorski, it's important to the party and its chairman that it has a visible position," Pigeon said. "But it would be wrong if the chairman were there to create jobs that aren't needed, or if he didn't insist upon professional management."

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