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IT'S GOP LANDSLIDE FOR ATTENDANCE ON COMMITTEES

In Niagara County, where there is no executive and the government is run by committees of legislators, who shows up for which committees takes on a good deal of importance.

Figures compiled from attendance sheets for all the meetings of the Legislature's nine standing committees in 2000 show that the five best attendance records belonged to Republicans, while Democrats compiled five of the worst six records.

Republican Legislator Samuel P. Granieri of Niagara Falls was the committee attendance champion, with a 92.5 percent record. On the other side of the spectrum, Legislator Renae Kimble, D-Niagara Falls, made it to only four committee meetings all year. Her attendance record of 13.5 percent came despite having only two committee assignments, the fewest of anyone except Majority Leader Shirley G. Urtel.

"I was involved in the district, working very hard for my constituents," Kimble said. "There's no requirement that any legislator attend any of the committee meetings. . . . It's much more important that I be accessible to my constituents."

Legislature Chairman Clyde L. Burmaster, a Republican, said he appointed Kimble to only two committees, while other members had as many as five assignments, because of her past attendance record.

"There were complaints from the chairmen of the committees that she wasn't showing up," Burmaster said.

Kimble said she sees the meetings of the full Legislature as her priority. "I am elected to attend those (formal Legislature) meetings in Lockport twice a month," and indeed she missed only one in 2000. "What's important is the resolutions that are presented on the floor. Those set the policies of the county."

Kimble noted that she was in charge of two task forces in the past two years -- on infant mortality and the status of women, as well as serving on a selection committee for the Industrial Development Agency's microenterprise loan program.

"I don't want people to think I don't do any county work. Nothing could be further from the truth," she said.

Niagara County is run by committees, since it has no executive or administrator. And the committees have power to make decisions on certain issues without sending them to the full Legislature for ratification.

Under state law, the Legislature chairman has absolute power over how many committees there are, who the chairmen are, and how many members they have.

"There's a reason for all these committees, if we're a committee form of government. It's to find out what's going on, not just to take a vote," said Urtel.

Some of his Democratic colleagues said Granieri's top-ranked committee attendance record should have an asterisk attached. "When he comes at all, he comes late and leaves early," said Minority Leader Robert L. Seger.

"I don't believe I'm in the habit of coming late and leaving early," said Granieri. "Even if I did that, coming late and leaving early is better than not showing up."

In general, the majority Republicans have more committee assignments, to make sure they have control of each individual committee as well as the full Legislature. This means they have more meetings, but also more opportunities to be absent.

"You would think the numbers would be the other way," said Burmaster, of Ransomville, who appoints the committees. "The Republicans have less incentive to show up because they know they're going to have the votes."

Seger, of North Tonawanda, said he was surprised by the figures. But his interpretation was the opposite of Burmaster's.

"Any majority party would be higher, because they pick the meetings," Seger said.

"That might just be a reflection of the majority party," said Granieri.

"They're the majority party and they're running the government," said Legislator Daniel L. Mocniak, D-Niagara Falls, the Democrat with the best attendance record at 87.5 percent.

Seger and other Democrats have been complaining that the Republicans prefer to govern in secret and don't let them know what's going on. But Burmaster said if the Democrats aren't informed, it's their own fault.

"Look at the record," Burmaster said. "If you're not informed, maybe you're not at the meetings to find out. It's a sad commentary."

Urtel, R-Cambria, chimed in, "It certainly explains a lot about why they say they don't know what's going on."

In 2000, there were nine standing committees: Administration, Finance, Health Services, Human Resources, Public Safety, Public Works, Parks, Social Services, and Commerce, Tourism and Agriculture.

For 2001, a 10th committee, Education, was added.

The authority of the committees was expanded in 1999, when a reform resolution was passed by the Legislature. It gave the committees power to authorize bidding on projects, approve travel by county employees, and make some types of money transfers within the existing county budget.

The impact of that change was to significantly reduce the size of Legislature agendas, but it also meant that dozens of items that formerly would have come before the full Legislature are now dealt with in committee.

"If you're not there, you're more part of the problem than you are the solution," Urtel said.

Seger said looking only at the standing committees is misleading, because there are many other committees that some legislators have to attend.

Seven lawmakers spent substantial time in 2000 serving on a board of inquiry into the Board of Elections pay scandal. There was also an ad hoc committee to study whether the county should sell its share of the national tobacco lawsuit settlement for a lump sum of cash. (It did.)

Other legislators are serving on non-Legislature committees such as the Refuse Disposal District board, the County Charter Commission and the Niagara County Community College board of trustees.

Legislator Sean J. O'Connor, D-Niagara Falls, blamed his NCCC board service, in part, for creating conflicts that contributed to his attendance record on standing committees, which at 58.1 percent was the second-worst in the Legislature.

"We don't have a staff. We don't have people we can send to these things," O'Connor said. "The most important thing is follow-up with the committee chairman, so I'm abreast of the information, so I can make a good judgment at the legislative meetings the first and third Tuesdays of the month."

Everyone had a good record for showing up at those formal meetings. Legislator Robert R. Villani, R-Town of Niagara, who had health problems during the year, had the most absences, missing six of the 24 full Legislature sessions. That also contributed to his 58.9 percent committee attendance score, the lowest among the Republicans.

Everyone else attended at least 20 of the 24, and four members made it to every meeting: Lee Simonson, R-Lewiston; William L. Ross, C-Wheatfield; Gerald R. DeFlippo, R-Lockport; and Granieri. Again, the top attendance records belonged to Republicans, or in Ross' case, a Conservative who caucuses with the GOP.

Most Republicans had four or five committee assignments, while Democrats tended to have three or four. Most committees meet once a month, although the busiest ones -- Finance, Public Works, and Human Resources -- usually meet twice a month.

Urtel had only one committee assignment, as Finance chairwoman, and she attended 22 of 24 meetings. "(Burmaster) mentioned that I was also majority leader and that took a lot of time," she said.

But Urtel also served on three non-Legislature committees: the Soil and Water Conservation District board, the Cornell Cooperative Extension board and the Ad Hoc Library Committee.

Seger said Urtel didn't do enough work. "Yes, Finance is a busy committee, but so are Public Works and Human Resources, which also meet twice a month," he said. Burmaster did assign Urtel seats on two other standing committees for 2001.

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