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Service in the public spirit ; National Fuel donates an executive, helping Collins and some charities

Something very public-spirited is happening at County Hall something that speaks well of one of the region's best known corporations. National Fuel has sent one of its executives, Jeffrey F. Hart, to serve as top deputy to Erie County Executive Chris Collins. The company will continue to pay Hart's salary while Hart, himself, will donate his county salary to charity.

The arrangement speaks well of all involved and represents a pattern that, carefully implemented, would be worth repeating in other levels of government. It's not the first time it has occurred in Erie County.

To be sure, there are minefields in such arrangements. National Fuel, for example, is Erie County's largest payer of property taxes and a major county vendor. It receives millions of dollars through the federal Home Energy Assistance Program, which the county administers.

These create potential conflicts with the county's Ethics Code, which forbids an employee from collecting compensation from entities with county business that the employee can affect. Hart will oversee county departments such as Health, Public Works and Social Services.

To abide by the code, and keep within the lines of a 1979 opinion by then-Attorney General Robert Abrams, Hart will abstain from any county matter related to National Fuel, which will be handled by Collins, himself.

If it works right, it could be a great service to the county. Still, we think County Legislator Maria R. Whyte is onto something in wanting more specifics about the process by which recusals will take place.

To protect the integrity of the process and of the ability of future executives to make use of this program, the Collins administration should set out a process and make available information on the issues that arise and how they are handled, through whatever decision is made.

Overall, though, it is good to see the private sector make this kind of commitment to the public good. National Fuel is taking a step it doesn't have to take. We hope others in the business community will consider following suit if the need arises.

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