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A MATTER OF PERCEPTION

The Joint Schools Construction Board, a seven-member body of city and school officials, has a large task ahead of it as it chooses a program manager for Buffalo's $1 billion school construction program. It's important that the members take every precaution to avoid the perception that their decisions are influenced by politicians, unions or lawmakers.

Already, there are rumblings of forces working behind the scenes in hopes of influencing the outcome. Perhaps one of the most disturbing reports of political pressure involves Erie County Democratic Chairman G. Steven Pigeon.

Pigeon has said that he's not supporting anyone, publicly or privately. However, he said, a Democratic chairman can have a position. He believes there should be a project labor agreement (PLA) and minority involvement, and that's a position he has encouraged. But he's leaving the details up to the officials.

However, he said the unions did ask him to mention that the JP Morgan Chase & Co. group had a good package and was being supported because the companies favor a PLA. And the JP Morgan group was indeed one of the four finalists chosen by the board for consideration for the construction program.

Which is not to say that the JP Morgan group isn't a legitimate candidate for the job, or might not turn out to have the best proposal. But it is to say that the more politicians, lawmakers and unions get involved in the lobbying, the more difficult it will be for the construction board to maintain the appearance of absolute objectivity.

Pigeon has denied he has tried to influence anyone. We hope that's the case, because it would be inappropriate for a party chairman to get involved in this. And, of course, Democrats were quick to counter-punch with accusations that County Executive Joel A. Giambra is working to win the job for his own team.

It's important that all sides recognize that the children are the ones who are supposed to benefit from this school construction program. Creating better schools will go a long way not only toward improving the quality of education in Buffalo, but the quality of life. There is no more important job in this matter than that of program manager, which will oversee everything from construction to financing.

So far, the board reportedly has done a good job of fending off lobbyists. To its credit, it has made it known that influence peddling will do no good. By developing an internal review process, the board has at least set up safeguards, which include a separate panel of experts.

Companies seeking the project manager position - which carries control of hundreds of millions of dollars in construction contracts, as well as some $25 million in fees - have been given assurances that they will be dealt with in a professional manner, and won't lose the job because a competitor was able to marshal more political power.

Those who wield power in this community - elected officials, party leaders and union representatives - ought to stay away from the board as it picks from its final four candidates. The more influence these folks try to wield, the more difficult it will be to convince citizens that the choice was made on the basis of what a company knows rather than who it knows.

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