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A tough job, honestly done Buffalo stumbled in the Masiello era, but mayor may have helped it turn a corner

Anthony M. Masiello seemed just the thing when the people of Buffalo elected him mayor 12 years ago. If he turned out to be something less than that, he still has been a mayor who genuinely cares about his city and whose evaluation must take into account the region's debilitating economic anemia.

Masiello was elected in 1993 as the anti-Griffin: a mayor who would bring a less confrontational tone to a City Hall that had been dominated by Jimmy Griffin, a man who always seemed to be spoiling for a fight.

That turned out to be more or less true, and it had its advantages. Masiello put a welcoming face on Buffalo, and he was resilient. To our knowledge, he never personalized the attacks that are a mayor's lot.

But the approach also carried its own liabilities. Affable and risk-averse, Masiello may have been too easygoing a man to squeeze the most out of his position.

A city as stubborn and unruly as this one needs a take-charge leader, but Masiello couldn't bring himself, for a long time, to jettison poor performers at the top of his administration, appointees whose inability to produce held the city back. That indecisiveness occasionally showed up in other ways, as well, giving the mayor the disconcerting appearance of believing somebody else was in charge.

Masiello's other great drawback was that he lacked an inspiring vision of what he wanted to achieve. Instead of charging into his mayoralty -- as he suggested he would 12 years ago -- he settled instead for managing the challenges and opportunities that came his way. He was more traffic cop than road-builder.

Still, there are successes, many of them occurring in his final term. A state-backed school construction project has been adroitly handled here; Masiello is chairman of the Joint Schools Construction Board. He deserves credit for stepping into the debate over the Peace Bridge Expansion Project and pushing it toward a decent resolution that recognizes the need for a dramatic design.

The mayor also was an early objector to the penny-ante deal offered to Buffalo and Erie County by the New York Power Authority as part of its relicensing effort here. That gave Rep. Brian M. Higgins some of the clout he needed to demand -- and ultimately win -- a better deal.

On his watch, Buffalo produced a downtown development plan, the Queen City Hub, that won a top national award and that points the way toward smart growth -- although downtown's boom in housing was offset by stumbles over AM&A's and the Tralf, and the city, inexcusably, still hasn't finished its glacial development of a unified and comprehensive plan.

He won (after years of inattention) a long-term argument with the city police union, trading money for the long-term benefits of single-officer patrol cars and more flexible scheduling authority.

And, perhaps paradoxically, he has served well on the state control board that formally acknowledged -- also on Masiello's watch -- that Buffalo had become an economic disaster. But much of the reason for that disintegration was beyond the mayor's control: unfriendly labor laws; a combative Common Council; the decline of American manufacturing, especially in the steel and automotive industries.

Buffalo could have used a more dynamic mayor over the past 12 years, but whatever his weaknesses and whatever went undone, Masiello was an honorable mayor who gave his best. He may not be leaving the city in significantly better shape than he found it, but he may have helped put it on that track. That merits the city's thanks.

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