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Humbled Rigases make a sad spectacle

   NEW YORK -- The sad, surreal saga of John J. Rigas took one of its oddest turns yet Thursday, as the wizened face of the onetime Buffalo Sabres owner swallowed up the left third of a wide-screen television in a federal courtroom here during the Rigas family's latest appeal for mercy.

   Rigas and his son Timothy appeared via videoconference at a resentencing hearing, asking Judge Leonard B. Sand to dramatically cut the sentences they started serving at a North Carolina federal prison last August.

   John Rigas, 83, is supposed to be there 15 years, while his middle-aged son is set for 20 years behind bars. Both were convicted of fraud and conspiracy in 2004 in connection with the downfall of Adelphia Communications Corp., which crumbled in what the government called one of the biggest corporate frauds ever.

   And while this plea for mercy is a matter of law best left to Judge Sand, it was striking to see what nine months in prison had done to John and Timothy Rigas.

   The family patriarch looked smaller and more frail and utterly overwhelmed by what had happened to him. At times he seemed distracted, but when his son James pleaded for a reduced sentence, the father wiped away tears.

   And the once-dark-haired Timothy, like Leland in "Twin Peaks," seems to have gone gray overnight.

   In light of it all, the Rigases' lawyer, Lawrence G. McMichael, asked Sand a question that I invite all of you to answer.

   "You're looking at a man who is 83 years old and is sentenced to 15 years in prison," McMichael said. "He's not going to live 15 years; he's going to live three or four years. So that's a life sentence. What purpose does it serve to keep him incarcerated?"

    -- Jerry Zremski   

Collins learning how to play politics

   Love him or hate him, just about everybody acknowledges we've never had a county executive like Chris Collins.

   The rookie politician, a Republican, was swept into the 16th floor of the Rath County Office Building last November in a landslide. And he did it by challenging the area's political status quo, casting himself as a "chief executive not a chief politician," and promising to run Erie County like a business.

   But today's story in The Buffalo News outlines the evolution of the millionaire businessman into at least a semi-politician. Critics say he has ignored his campaign promise by diving into the political pool, flexing his muscles in races for the House of Representatives and the Assembly.

   Others say he is an elected official, for heaven's sake, and has to play the politics game … at least to some extent.

   In any event, Collins the politician is a new and interesting side of our county executive, and is a story with a long way to go before it plays out.

   What do you think of how Collins is conducting himself as county executive?

   -- Robert J. McCarthy

How a bill FINALLY becomes a law

   WASHINGTON —  Back in school, when we were taught how a bill becomes a law, nobody ever told us it might take as long as kindergarten, elementary school and junior and senior high school combined.

   Yet that's just what happened to Rep. Louise M. Slaughter's bill banning discrimination on the basis of a person's genetic makeup — even though a majority of House members signed onto the bill nine years ago.

   President Bush finally signed the measure into law on Wednesday, prompting a collective sigh of relief from all the scientists and physicians and advocates who had supported it for years.

   Turns out that business interests, and one tenacious congressional staffer, could do what a majority of House members could not until now: control the fate of a piece of legislation with the potential to touch every American's life.

   But all of this raises an important question.

   How democratic is a Congress where a majority has to wait nine years to get its way?

-- Jerry Zremski

Voting on school budgets: Is it worth it?

   With all school district budgets in Erie and Niagara counties gaining approval from voters, some might wonder: why vote at all?

   School district spending is the only municipal budget that residents get a say over, so why are they saying yes? Are they happy with the results, or could it be that the taxpayer revolt has turned to taxpayer apathy?

   Or is it because while they can vote on the school budget, they don't have that much say over spending? If it is defeated and a contingent budget is put in place, most of the programs would continue.

   Contingent rules do not hamper most day-to-day operations. The district would not be able to spend money on new equipment, optional maintenance and most community use of the schools.

  Sometimes, with the spending cap, a district could spend more money under a contingent budget than the budget that voters defeated.

   So what's a taxpayer to do?

  --- Barbara O'Brien

The long, long wait for disability payments

   WASHINGTON … A year is a long time to wait for the government benefits you deserve, but many people who have been applied for Social Security disability payments in the Buffalo area have been waiting far longer than that.

   I wrote that story a year ago … and a year later, Lindsey McPherson, who served as our Washington intern until last week, found that it is still true.

   What's more, it's a very personal story that we will continue to pay attention to so long as these delays continue.

   So if this has happened to you, if you have applied for these benefits only to encounter delay and frustration, feel free to tell us about it here, or to drop me a line at [email protected].

  -- Jerry Zremski

The McKinley report, with no help from Barton

   The report issued by the special investigator looking into Jayvonna Kincannon's seven-week at McKinley High School — later shortened to five weeks — is heavily critical of Principal Crystal Barton and of the School District's execution of the suspension.

   Principal Barton was also found to have suppressed the rights of Jayvonna and other students from speaking before the School Board. Barton was the only potential witness, the report said, who refused to cooperate with the investigation.

   The report also suggests volunteer girls basketball coach Michelle Stiles' dismissal may have been influenced by boys basketball coach James Daye. Her job as "de facto" head coach, the report said, wasn't in jeopardy until Daye became angry at her for inquiring why he had been at the home where a girl on the team was temporarily living. Daye, Stiles later learned, was there to visit the girl's adult female cousin.

   Now that the report by special investigator David L. Edmunds Jr. is out, what do you think should happen next?

   … Mark Sommer

   

Both sides have a point on Peace Bridge neighborhood plan

   WASHINGTON — So if the National Trust for Historic Preservation is to be believed, the Peace Bridge Authority wants to "pave paradise to put up a parking lot," which is why the preservation group put the Peace Bridge neighborhood on its list of most endangered historic sites.

   But in the view of the Peace Bridge Authority, its plan for an expanded truck plaza — which would wipe out good sections of the historic neighborhoods nearby — is an absolute necessity to ensure smooth passage of truck traffic from Canada into the United States.

   Who's right?

   I went to the neighborhood last week for the first time in many years to take a look, and sure enough, the homes and trees and streetscapes are exquisite. It's the kind of neighborhood that gives Buffalo its timeless appeal.

   Yet when I looked into the distance, I saw a line of trucks stacked up for entry at the border, and thought: there's money being lost in a long wait.

   And it all brings to mind a question.

   Could this be one of those tough public policy debates where both sides are right?

   And if so, what should be done?

   -- Jerry Zremski

Is sexism dogging Hillary's presidential hopes?

  WASHINGTON -- On a day trip to Buffalo last week, a half-dozen women came up to me and said, in essence, that they're mad as hell.

   A woman had a chance to be president, and a younger, less experienced man appears to have taken that chance away from her, and these women were not happy about it.

   And they were not alone. I had been hearing similar sentiments on the campaign trail for weeks. Now they seemed to be reaching a peak, though, so I decided to write about them.

   Again and again, the women I interviewed raised the possibility that sexism stood between Hillary Clinton and the presidency. After all, there are no Barack Obama nutcrackers out there, and nobody has devoted a long story to his slim, athletic visage the way the Washington Post devoted a story to Clinton's cleavage.

   If this is sexism, it has gone largely unnoticed in a campaign where race and racism have never been far from front-and-center.

   But should it go unnoticed? Or is Hillary Clinton now the Democratic runner-up because too many Americans just aren't ready for a female president?

-- Jerry Zremski

Hope, love radiate through story of loss

   There can be no joy, none whatsoever, in losing a child.

   But Kim and George Hermance felt a huge sense of relief three years after their daughter Emily died.

   After three years of detailed research and plenty of legal actions, they proved their innocence in her death, beyond any doubt. They also sent a message to authorities, about the need for sensitivity in dealing with anyone who has lost a loved one, especially a child.

   The best part for the Hermances, though, is that they now can look back and realize that all the lessons they learned in dealing with Emily's tough physical condition helped them fight their winning battle.

   They're free, in a sense, to celebrate her life again. So yes, this remains a story of sadness, but one mixed in with hope and plenty of love.

  -- Gene Warner

Village may let town take over

The tiny Village of North Collins may fold up its tent and just be part of the Town of Collins, one small step toward decreasing the number of governments in New York State.

The village doesn't expect significant cost savings right away if it dissolves. After all, it has only four full-time employees. What it is hoping for is a bigger voice in larger matters, such as applying for assistance  from the state and elsewhere. If it joins with the town in these efforts, there will be one voice, instead of two competing.

Even with this step, the larger proposals of the State Commission on Local Government Efficiency and Competitiveness are receiving mixed reviews.

Some members of the commission, Stan Lundine, Sam Hoyt and Kathryn Foster, explain how the suggestions can streamline public services and save money   in today's Opinion section.

It is obvious the discussion will not end soon.

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