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Legislators split in re-electing top leader ; 3 Democrats join 6 in Republican bloc to help Miller-Williams retain position

A deeply divided Erie County Legislature re-elected its leaders Thursday amid criticism that the 15-member body is nothing but a rubber stamp for County Executive Chris Collins.

Barbara Miller-Williams, a Buffalo Democrat, was re-elected chairwoman by a 9-6 vote, with most of her support coming from the Republican-affiliated bloc on the other side of the aisle.

Thomas J. Mazur of Cheektowaga, her only challenger, won the support of most of his fellow Democrats but fell two votes short of the eight needed to win.

"This selection guarantees that County Executive Collins will continue to have a rubber-stamp Legislature that reacts to his bullying tactics by caving in to his dictatorial operation," Leonard Lenihan, chairman of the County Democratic Party, said in a statement.

Lenihan's comments reflect the deep divisions between most of the Legislature's nine-member Democratic majority and the bipartisan coalition that works closely with Collins, a Republican.

Collins is "very happy to have another reform leader who's protecting taxpayer interests," Christopher M. Grant, the county executive's chief of staff, said of Miller-Williams' victory.

The vote followed a debate in which Democrats criticized Miller-Williams for everything from her work ethic to her Democratic Party credentials and her ability to run legislative meetings.

"You're doing so many things well, but leading the Erie County Legislature is not one of them," said Maria R. Whyte, a Buffalo Democrat who won re-election as majority leader.

Whyte was among the six Democrats who sided with Mazur, a Legislature veteran known for his ability to work with Democrats and Republicans.

"He's a true Democrat who works civilly with all parties," said Legislator Lynn M. Marinelli, a Town of Tonawanda Democrat and former Legislature chairwoman.

In the end, Miller-Williams needed only two Democratic votes to win re-election as chairwoman. She got three -- her own and those of Christina W. Bove of West Seneca and Timothy J. Whalen of Buffalo.

"This is a woman of strength and service," Bove said. "Anyone who knows Barbara Miller-Williams knows she has a heart that's very large."

The chairwoman also got the support of the five Republicans and one Independence Party member in the Legislature, many of them upset by the attacks on Miller-Williams' record over the past year.

"I don't think we're getting anywhere by attacking individuals," said Legislator John J. Mills, an Orchard Park Republican who won re-election as minority leader.

Miller-Williams sat silently as the Legislature debated her record. But after the vote, she spoke of the need for legislators to put aside their differences.

"We must realize partisan bickering is not going to work," she told lawmakers. "My message to my colleagues is: 'Let's work together. Let's not fight each other.' "

In other action, the Legislature voted to accept a $639,000 grant from the county control board.

The money will be used to restore eight positions -- six auditors and two tax collectors -- cut from the County Comptroller's Office in this year's budget.

Democrats claim the positions were eliminated because of the ongoing political feud between Collins and Comptroller Mark C. Poloncarz.

Also, Jennifer C. Persico, the attorney for the Democratic majority, was asked to resign, at the request of John Davis, the Legislature's chief of staff, who reports to Miller-Williams.