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Depew mayor shows how to be a reformer

She flashes a smile and carries a figurative hatchet.

She is a 64-year-old grandmother with two artificial knees and one real purpose: to give people what they want.

She is so new on the job that, when the temperature spiked into the 70s Monday afternoon, she did not know how to open her office window. When she figured out the latch after a few seconds, it was merely the latest in a flurry of successes in three weeks as mayor of Depew.

Barbara Alberti successfully backed a move to cut the Village Board by two members. She merged two jobs, abolished four others, balanced the budget and saved taxpayers about $125,000.

The auburn-haired retiree became a model of what can -- and should -- be done in every village, town and city.

Taxes are crushing, people are deserting in droves, and folks think politicians cover their own tracks instead of watch the taxpayers' backs. It has to change. It is not just what we believe. It is what she believes.

Civic leader Kevin Gaughan's recent "The Cost" study (www.TheCost.org) put a price on what each of us pays for government, with its overlapping layers and excess of officials.

Alberti didn't need a study to see the problem. She heard it from behind every door she knocked on while campaigning: Cut taxes. Cut government. Give us a break. "People said they wanted change," said Alberti, who mixes hard looks and soothing words in measure common to a good teacher. "A lot of positions that were created [in recent years] were not necessary."

She should know. Alberti worked in village government for 23 years. She saw the fat and the cracks.

Reformers come in all genders, races and ages. No party boss picked her, no business types bankrolled her in return for a promise to do their bidding. That is the way it often works, and that is why so little gets done around here. Promises to hack patronage jobs do not get kept; reform is no more than a campaign slogan.

Alberti's run for office was born of the best motives. It shows in the results. "I don't need the job; I'm retired," she said. "But now at least I know that, at the end of my life, I can say that I tried to make a change."

Alberti has the charm, grit and backing to get it done. She was swept into office with three like-minded board members. On the same night, residents voted -- by a 9-1 ratio -- to lop two trustees off the Village Board.

Reform is its own reward. Alberti has heard encouraging words from across restaurant tables and in supermarket aisles. Give people what they want, and they remember.

Change is contagious. Voter pressure is forcing reform. Depew's board downsizing follows that of Buffalo's Common Council, Tonawanda's Town Board and the Erie County Legislature. Efforts in recent years, led by County Executive Joel Giambra, to merge or dissolve overlapping governments largely failed. Instead, reformers have cut the number of officials within governments.

Alberti's greatest success, of course, would be to jettison her own job. The big prize still is to dissolve villages into towns. Depew has its own Police, Public Works, Recreation and Buildings departments, and its own mayor, treasurer, clerk and court. So do Cheektowaga and Lancaster, the towns Depew exists within. Redundancies "R" Us.

Dissolving Depew would save taxpayer dollars. It is the bottom line to Alberti.

"No one has yet come up with a way to [dissolve the village]," Alberti said. "But, yes, I'd go along with it. I'd dissolve my own job."

Like any reformer, Alberti would not let self-sacrifice stand in her way. It is the political attitude we need for things to change.

e-mail: desmonde@buffnews.com

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