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POLLING DATA FROM MAY STIRS CHARTER DEBATE

The conventional wisdom among Niagara County politicians has been that the proposed County Charter will be defeated at the polls next Tuesday because of opposition from voters in the towns.

The conventional wisdom may be wrong.

Polling data released Monday but compiled in May shows that 51 percent of voters in both the towns and the cities supported a county executive form of government. To pass, the charter must receive a majority of the total city vote and the total town vote. Creation of the position of county executive is the centerpiece of the charter.

A separate question shows overwhelming support for shrinking the size of the County Legislature.

In the three cities, the poll shows that 51 percent supported a county executive, 36 percent were opposed, and 13 percent were undecided. In the 12 towns, the figures are 51 percent in favor, 35 percent opposed and 14 percent not sure.

The poll was commissioned from Barry Zeplowitz & Associates by the Niagara Business Alliance, which made it public Monday through the pro-charter Committee for a Better Niagara.

"It's so old it can't even be relied upon," said Newfane Supervisor John J. Connolly, one of the charter's staunchest opponents. "Where has it been during the time the supervisors were trying to make our (anti-charter) position known to the people of Niagara County? This is last-minute maneuvering, and I'm disappointed in the group."

Kevin Schuler, interim executive director of the Business Alliance, acknowledged that the 5-month-old data is being released now in an effort to give the pro-charter effort more momentum.

"To say there's a huge groundswell of opposition to this is just not accurate," he said.

Zeplowitz said he has not polled on the County Charter since May, and Schuler said he was unaware of anyone compiling more recent data.

Legislator Samuel P. Granieri, D-Niagara Falls, the chairman of the Charter Commission, said he was "encouraged by the apparent support."

The May poll was a telephone survey of 400 residents and has a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percentage points, according to Zeplowitz. He said 53 percent of the respondents were from towns and 47 percent from cities.

As originally taken, the poll was not congruent with the way in which the referendum will be conducted. But at the request of The Buffalo News, Zeplowitz rechecked his data to produce a city-town division.

Schuler said the Business Alliance wanted polling data "to determine if we should get behind (the charter) with our time, effort and dollars." The original poll divided the county up into three geographic regions, with a city and its surrounding towns included in each. Schuler said that this was to determine where the charter might be in trouble, so advertising could be concentrated in that area.

Zeplowitz said the pollsters posed the question in this way: "A Charter Commission is reviewing the operations of Niagara County government and will recommend to the voters this November some suggestions for change. Please tell me if you would support or oppose the creation of a county executive in Niagara County, since the county currently does not have one."

The result was that 53 percent of respondents supported a county executive, and 31 percent were in opposition in Niagara Falls and the towns of Niagara, Lewiston, Porter and Wilson. The rest, 16 percent, were undecided.

In North Tonawanda, Pendleton and Wheatfield, the poll shows 51 percent in favor of a county executive and 35 percent against, with 14 percent undecided.

In the City of Lockport and the towns of Lockport, Cambria, Newfane, Royalton, Hartland and Somerset, the poll shows 48 percent in favor of a county executive, 41 percent against and 11 percent undecided.

Zeplowitz said the results show a major shift from the public's view the last time he surveyed Niagara County about a county executive in March 1998.

That countywide poll, also commissioned by the Business Alliance, showed 37.2 percent in favor, 31.7 percent opposed and 31.1 percent undecided.

"I guess the most I can say is, it's interesting," said County Legislature Chairman Clyde L. Burmaster, R-Ransomville. "We've said all along we expected it to pass in the cities and have trouble in the towns."

The second question in the poll was, "Would you support or oppose a reduction in the size of the County Legislature from 19 members to 11?"

After the poll was taken, the charter was revised to set the new Legislature's size at 15 members rather than 11. But the notion of a smaller Legislature was overwhelmingly supported in the May poll. It showed 75 percent approved in cities and 72 percent in towns.

The regional approval rate was 72 percent in the Niagara Falls area, 75 percent in the North Tonawanda area and 73 percent in the Lockport area.

e-mail: tprohaska@buffnews.com

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