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Little is more important to Buffalo's 21st century prospects than for the city and its municipal unions to forge a more constructive relationship out of the wreckage that decades of governmental carelessness and labor intransigence have dumped at the front doors of city taxpayers.

That glaring fact makes the appointment of a new city human resources commissioner one of the most significant decisions Mayor Anthony Masiello will make in his current term. The mayor seems to understand that, given the comments of the likely candidate, a Buffalo native with a background in municipal government.

Leonard A. Matarese has 20 years' experience in public administration. He is a consultant on municipal affairs and holds the dual positions of village manager and director of public safety in Indian Creek Village, near Miami, Fla.

Speaking to Common Council members over the past several days, Matarese has said his goal is to replace the "confrontational, win-lose" mentality of city labor relations with a "problem-solving" approach that encourages both management and unions to resolve issues to their mutual benefit. It's the best approach, but achieving it will take time and patience.

Destructive labor relations, especially regarding the Police Benevolent Association, have been running on automatic so long in Buffalo that few people know anything other than confrontation. The city's labor history, exacerbated by caustic personalities and abetted by state laws that discourage honest negotiation, has become its own self-fulfilling prophecy. Matarese will have a mammoth task before him simply to create a level of trust that will allow the two sides to discuss difficult issues in a forthright manner.

Still, there are glimmers of hope. William McGuire, president of the city's blue-collar union, saw Matarese's appointment as a positive step, and while PBA President Robert Meegan stopped short of offering an olive branch, he said that if Matarese is serious about creating a better relationship, "that would be a breath of fresh air for this administration." Call it a start.

Buffalo's dysfunctional labor history has roots in both camps, and each will have to put up if matters are to improve. For starters, Meegan will have to get over the notion that a better relationship requires the city to simply agree with the PBA on contentious issues such as scheduling of police officers and the use one-person cars, which, in fact, the PBA previously promised to negotiate. It's possible to disagree and still negotiate in good faith.

Nevertheless, the city leads in this dance, and it is up to the administration to take every reasonable step toward crafting a healthier labor relationship. With the prospective appointment of Matarese, it seems to be moving in that direction. If so, it will be up to the unions to respond in kind.

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