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Erie County Legislature: The Play’s the Thing

Here at AV, we leave the theatrical reviews to Anthony Chase, so I’m not going to recap the mixture of passion, sarcasm, venom, and aloofness unleashed by the members of the Erie County Legislature during yesterday’s re-organization meeting, in which a coalition of six Republicans and three Democrats elected Democrat Barbara Miller-Williams chair. If you want to watch the performances, check out the video at WNYMedia.

(Well, maybe some quick notes: Maria Whyte, your material is top-notch but you need to slow down and soften your voice—don’t go full-on Byron Brown in your delivery, but meet him halfway. Dan Kozub: One “yous” establishes character; three in tight succession is hamhanded. Ray Walter: Can you not control yourself at all? Stop rolling your eyes while others speak. You look like a snot-nosed eighth-grader. Sound like one, too. Tom Mazur: Nice touch, whistling “Le Vie En Rose” as legislators and guests drifted in before the session started.)

Rumors flew through the room in the form of text messages and whispered asides as the session progressed:

1. Erie County sheriff deputies were prepared to escort out fired staffers at the end of the meeting. (That one was true. Eight Democratic staffers and one Republican staffer were let go. The Republican/Democrat coalition created several new jobs, increasing the legislature’s personnel budget in the process, and failed in its restructuring to account for the costs of letting people go—sick time, vacation time, etc.—as well as the costs of benefits for the new positions.)

2. Grassroots founder Maurice Garner would get a job on the legislature staff. That seemed silly—Garner does well as a consultant for a big firm in Albany—and fortunately he was sitting right next to me in the gallery. He laughed and said he would not be leaving the private sector any time soon. But John C. Davis, a Grassroots stalwart and brother to Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples, will be the new chief of staff.

3. Local Independence Party chair Sandy Rosenwie will land a job. She’s tight with rogue Democrat Christine Bove, so this makes sense. No confirmation yet.

The turnover in jobs is not the real story here. While the upheaval is difficult for those who have been let go, that’s a risk political appointees live with. It’s sad that the new coalition felt the need to employ sheriff deputies to let go of these long-term employees, but that’s their choice.

I think the real story is this: The six Democrats who stood by outgoing chair Lynn Marinelli, led my majority leader Maria Whyte, have apparently decided not to let the three rogue Democrats—Bove, Tim Kennedy, and Miller-Williams—to caucus with them. They are, in effect, ceding the majority to this new coalition, which was convenient as a means for seizing power but may not remain comfortable. Can eye-rolling suburban Republican Ray Walter stay sympatico with Miller-Williams for long? How long did the Republican/Democrat coalition that upset the the State Senate last summer hang together?

By handing the reins to this new coalition, the six Democrats are saying: “This is your game now. You and your sponsor, County Executive Chris Collins, are now wholly responsible for dealing with the upside-down budgets looming in 2011 and beyond. You’re responsible for Collins’s efforts to separate county government from the business of caring for the poor and elderly. Good luck with all that.”

As if to underline their isolation, the three rogue Democrats joined their Republican colleagues in the minority caucus room for a press conference after the re-org session.