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Don’t rush into changing the Erie County Charter

Revising the Erie County Charter is among those duties that should be strong on transparency and much weaker on political gamesmanship. Instead, accusations abound that party politics is driving a process that occurs only once every 10 years.

Shortsightedness that focuses on which party currently holds power could be the force behind several last-minute suggested changes. It has the appearance of such.

The Democratic county executive is complaining about a lack of transparency in sweeping proposals being put forth. He has a point. Nothing is so seriously wrong with Erie County government that sweeping and secretly debated changes should even be considered.

For County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz, some suggestions are being pushed forward without regard to residents. There is a short deadline. The Charter Review Commission must vote on the final charter changes before dissolving May 15.

Poloncarz and some on the 19-member commission are concerned that last-minute proposals are simply designed to weaken the authority of the County Executive’s Office. Those proposals would expand the power of the Comptroller’s Office and the Legislature. The Comptroller’s Office and the Legislature are Republican-controlled. For now.

One could question the changes suggested by Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw, Republican legislators and town officials in consultation with the Republican chairman of the Charter Review Commission, Todd Aldinger. Is it any wonder that Poloncarz doubts the transparency of the process?

Aldinger makes a point that the commission was given only three months to complete the work instead of nearly one year, as was the case last time the commission convened. The county executive, in an Another Voice piece published in Tuesday’s Buffalo News, insists this commission met 24 times since being empaneled in January and yet “essentially no members of the public or media have attended these meetings.” The last-minute proposals are, indeed, impactful given the obvious power shift.

Included is a suggestion to abolish the county executive’s budget division. Instead there would be a new budget office that would answer jointly to the County Executive’s Office and the Legislature.

The comptroller and Legislature would have the power to impose budget quotas and other cost-control measures on the county executive, whose authority and firing power over the county attorney would be hamstrung.

There also would be a new Regional Council, similar to the old Board of Supervisors. In this structure, town leaders would have the power to recommend county laws and make appointments to an Erie County Planning Board.

Major proposals that have already been discussed in subcommittees include lengthening county legislator terms from two years to four years, in conjunction with a new redistricting process. And there were several proposals designed to make it easier to give elected officials raises, which could occur even when the county increases the amount of taxes it collects from property owners.

Proposals adopted by the commission will go to the County Legislature, and that body would hold another public hearing before making final decisions on which recommendations to keep or discard.

Aldinger said the commission should review as many good ideas as possible, regardless of when they were submitted. The timing of those submissions against a tight deadline blurs what should be a transparent process.