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Watching Comptroller Nancy Naples become the first big-name casualty of the county fiscal fiasco is like watching the field judge step down after Scott Norwood missed his Super Bowl-deciding kick.

Or like watching the replay official call it quits after Brett Hull scored his infamous triple-overtime goal in the Stanley Cup finals. (OK, bad example. That official should have quit. But you get the idea.)

Blaming the bookkeeper for the money mess is like saying "kill the umpire" when Erie County's real problem is the players and the owners.

The shortcomings of the team hired by residents -- County Executive Joel Giambra and math-challenged legislators -- were obvious. Changing comptrollers might bring us one who pays her taxes on time, but it won't change their foolish fiscal policies.

In fact, Naples did her part to expose them with annual analyses that warned the county was spending too much compared to how much it was taking in. In an age when only excess gets noticed, maybe she could have made her warnings more dramatic. But we got the message -- and ignored it.

Dan Ward was much louder. He made the budget an issue when running against Giambra in 2003. We ignored him, too.

Most importantly, we ignored common sense and an old adage.

Receiving the benefits of tax cuts year after year after year . . . seven years, in all . . . was obviously too good to be true. And we all know about things that seem too good to be true. We can't blame Naples for that.

Which brings us to the second part of the problem: The notion that we can let private interests fund campaigns and then have politicians act in the public interest.

Even after listening to Naples' convoluted explanation for giving 80 percent of the county's bond underwriting business to one politically wired GOP contributor instead of the firm offering the lowest fee, I don't know if she was right.

If I were picking a financial adviser, I'm not sure I'd necessarily choose the one that offered the lowest fee, either, if I thought someone else had the smarts to earn me a higher return.

But I do know that I'd eliminate the guy who tried way too hard to help my party. Such "help" is always a danger in a campaign finance system that amounts to legalized bribery.

Naples' bond underwriter even had his mother contribute to her campaign, in an apparent bid to skirt rules that prevented him from donating directly.

Even if this was the best deal for the county, who'd believe it?

Probably only the same people who believe the New Orleans company that hosted a fund-raiser there for Legislature Chairman George Holt was only interested in fostering good government in Western New York. The fact that Holt "mistakenly" named the company in a resolution for a $3 million county contract, no doubt, was just a coincidence.

But until such things blow up into scandal, we want to pretend all of that can be true. Sure, controversies like this will drive people like Naples from office, maybe rightfully so. But how will we be any better off if they're replaced by others who are a little more subtle while playing the same game?

It's the game our campaign finance system demands. We won't embrace public funding of campaigns because we don't want to pay. Yet we refuse to acknowledge how much we're already paying -- just like we refused to acknowledge we couldn't maintain services without taxes.

You can't get something for nothing -- whether it's public services or public officials committed solely to the public.

Showing Naples the door won't change those basics facts of civic life. We're getting rid of the referee, but we'll keep losing until we focus on the players and on changing the rules of the game.


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