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If Erie County Executive Joel A. Giambra needs a Legislature that is sympathetic to his agenda -- and we believe he does -- then voters need a comptroller who will keep close tabs on how a more unified government uses taxpayer dollars. That person could be two-term incumbent Nancy Naples, but her Democratic challenger, Jeff Swiatek, is the better bet.

This is not simply a matter of a resume. If that were the only issue, Naples would have a decided edge, given her eight years in office, her economics and business degrees and 20 years' work on Wall Street.

Swiatek, by contrast, holds a law degree, and is a senior associate at Hodgson Russ, Buffalo's largest law firm. As a specialist in municipal law, though, he is familiar with issues such as contracts and fiscal controls. He was elected to the Cheektowaga Town Board in 1995 and re-elected in 1999.

More important, Swiatek may have a quality Naples seems to lack: independence. More than most elected positions, the office of comptroller requires an even-handed, nonpartisan approach. Much of the job is to act as a fiscal watchdog over other parts of government, regardless of who controls it. When Dennis Gorski was county executive, she seemed to instinctively oppose him. Now some of Naples' actions suggest she may be too close to Giambra.

For example, within days of Giambra's election two years ago, Naples and the executive-elect signed a joint press release calling on the Legislature to enact a 15 percent tax cut. The tax cut itself is not the problem; it was called for. But the relationship was too cozy: How could Naples impartially judge a Giambra fiscal plan that carried her name?

More recently, to her credit, Naples criticized the process by which the Giambra administration moved to purchase the Ticor Building, though she endorsed the financial deal. Indeed, Naples has performed adequately as comptroller. No one need believe the office would be in poor hands were she to win a third term.

Moreover, a vote for Swiatek must be based, at least in part, on faith. He says he would be independent. But with county Democratic Chairman G. Steven Pigeon actively supporting Swiatek's candidacy -- and helping him raise money -- some observers believe that quality will soon be replaced by partisanship. At some point, it is reasonable to assume, party headquarters will pressure Swiatek to obstruct Giambra's agenda.

We believe Swiatek will resist such pressure. He has acquired a solid reputation on the Cheektowaga Town Board, which is made up entirely of Democrats. That's a much easier test than the one he would face as comptroller of a county where responsibility is divided and the politics can be poisonous. Still, Swiatek pledges to maintain his independence, while Naples has already called hers into question. That ought to be a significant issue.

What is more, Swiatek has aggressive plans for helping the county's other taxing entities more efficiently manage their finances. Although Naples has also worked with local governments, Swiatek proposes to create a special unit, using existing staff, which would formalize this kind of effort.

It's a great idea, an example of top-down regionalism, and a recognition that as important as it is to monitor use of county tax dollars, they make up only 20 percent of property taxes paid in the county. It will pay to give additional attention to the other 80 percent.

Both these candidates are capable; either will do a credible job for county residents. The issue is independence, and through it, public confidence that a real watchdog is in place. While no law says the comptroller has to be of a different party from the executive, the way Naples has linked herself to Giambra tilts the scale toward Swiatek.