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Collins' signing pact with lobbyist upsets left-out Democrats

So much for the detente.

Erie County Executive Chris Collins has hired an Albany lobbyist and sealed the $30,000 contract without the Legislature's approval, enraging the Democrats who control the Legislature.

Some of the Democrats -- it's not clear how many -- were inclined to approve the pact with Patricia Lynch and Associates when they met Thursday for their final February meeting.

Instead, lawmakers learned that Collins and County Attorney Cheryl A. Green will not seek the Legislature's approval because they don't think it's required under the county's rules.

During his State of the County speech on Feb. 5 Collins said he had "learned the importance of discussion and sharing our ideas with our colleagues in the Legislature."

Legislators saw it as an olive branch. They had just taken Collins to court in an ugly fight over this year's budget and came away with most of what they wanted, a smaller tax increase.

Just two weeks later, the goodwill from Collins' overture seems to have evaporated.

"Are we, or are we not, governing together?" asked Democratic Majority Leader Maria R. Whyte of Buffalo.

Most of the 12 Democrats appeared similarly perturbed.

"I am very disappointed. Again the Legislature's duties and powers are being questioned," said Legislator Michele M. Iannello, D-Kenmore.

"For him to sign that contract shows he doesn't care what this body thinks or does," said Legislator Daniel M. Kozub, D-Hamburg.

The County Legislature over the years has fought for the right to review contracts for lobbyists or any service that exceeds $10,000.

The County Charter states that "any contract to which the county is a party shall require approval by the County Legislature" and specifies, among others, contracts for "professional, technical or other consultant services."

At the same time, the Charter lets the county attorney, who is selected by the executive, hire lawyers and consultants as necessary "for the performance of his/her duties."

The Democratic lawmakers and their lawyer say that means county attorneys can hire outside lawyers and consultants to defend the government in lawsuits, not to unilaterally hire the lobbyist selected by the county executive.

"A lobbyist is a consultant," Green told the Democrats on Thursday. She said she simply followed the practice of past county attorneys and signed the contract with Patricia Lynch and Associates.

"This was never meant to be an 'us against them,' " she said later.

Collins, a Republican, has said he needs a lobbyist with Democratic connections to represent Erie County in Albany. In particular, he wants Gov. David A. Paterson, a Democrat, to sign a bill that would prevent the state-appointed control board from blocking his plans to borrow money for major repair projects.

"I don't have a problem with them entering into a contract with Patricia Lynch. We could use all the help we can get," said Legislature Chairwoman Lynn M. Marinelli, D-Town of Tonawanda. But she persuaded her colleagues to approve a statement demanding Collins seek their consent to hire the firm. While it has little force, it passed 12-3, over Republican objections.

e-mail: mspina@buffnews.com

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