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By Frank Thomas Croisdale

"You have to pass the baton. Everyone takes a turn and chips in. That's what great teams do." -- Orlando Hudson.

When George W. Bush vacated the White House and Barack Obama moved in, one assumes that the transition from one administration to the other was as seamless as possible. It's not hard to imagine that in the weeks and months leading up to the transference of power, there was a good amount of communication between the two staffs. Although one president was a Republican and the other a Democrat, it is a safe assumption that the incoming commander in chief did not find his new office bereft of files central to the successful execution of his duties.

Taking the natural leap of accepting this conjecture as fact, one might also reasonably surmise that the same protocol followed at our nation's highest level of government would also be the practice employed at the state level of governance.

Well, you know what they say about what happens when you assume, right? That it often leaves me and you looking like the favored biblical term for a donkey. Certainly that was the case when voters here decided that a change of scenery was in order for the holders of the New York 60th Senate District and the 138th District of the New York State Assembly.

When newly elected Sen. Mark Grisanti and Assemblyman John D. Ceretto got into their offices this month, they were greeted with eerily similar scenes.

"We found empty folders in the file cabinets and clear trash bags with shredded documents," Grisanti told me of his inheritance of the former office of Antoine Thompson.

Ceretto's welcome to his Pine Avenue office was nearly identical, but if the documents compiled by the staff of former Rep. Francine Del Monte had been shredded, the evidence was not left behind.

"The file cabinets were empty, the manila folders contained nothing but air," Ceretto explained.

The missing files in question once contained information on specific cases being worked on to benefit a constituent of the former senator or assemblywoman.

Some of them concerned companies that needed assistance, others not-for-profit groups, but most were just

John and Jane Niagara who found themselves needing the help of their elected state representative.

What's been written about the instances up to this point has focused on pitting John vs. Francine, or Mark vs. Antoine, but both men went out of their way to state to me that they have no interest in playing the blame game.

"It's about the constituents, the people of Niagara Falls and Niagara County. It's not personal. My job is to help the people that elected me, and having to reconstruct all of these files really sets us back," Ceretto said.

Grisanti was more direct in his assessment of what the shredded documents in his office represented.

"It was a slap in the face to the people. I took it seriously. It wasn't offensive against me, but it was against the people of the 60th District," he said.

State Sen. George Maziarz held back no punches when he offered his assessment of the behavior of the two exiting lawmakers.

"It's very disappointing, very unprofessional and disrespectful, just very spiteful from one colleague to another," he said.

The press coverage of Grisanti's ordeal caused Assemblyman Philip Boyle to introduce a bill that would make it a crime for any elected official to knowingly destroy "open" constituent case files. The legislation, which carries penalties of up to one year in jail and a $25,000 fine for parties found guilty, was quickly sponsored by both Ceretto and Grisanti.

"It's a preventative bill," Grisanti explained. "It's designed to prevent this issue from ever coming up again."

I asked both Thompson and Del Monte if they would vote for the bill if they were still in office. They gave differing responses that would seem to indicate that one of them has designs on running again, while the other may not.

Thompson said, "The bill has value, but they must proceed with caution. First, legislators can't assume that their successor, friend or foe, is responsible, or that he or she will hire responsible people. Sometimes cases may have Social Security numbers or very private information. In the age of sexual predators and bad elected officials and staff, you must be careful. Overall, I support the concept, but it is subject to interpretation and can pose problems for current and future elected officials."

Taking a different and dismissive tack, former Assemblywoman Del Monte had this to say:

"The state is facing a $10 billion deficit, potential layoffs in the thousands, and a multitude of other problems, and this is the biggest issue on their agendas? I've said everything that is necessary. I'm an adult, not a crybaby. I know how to create files and address constituent issues."

Recreating missing files is not such an easy task, according to Ceretto Chief of Staff Michele Altman.

"We had to start all over. Many people don't know that their files aren't here. The press coverage on the bill has helped get the word out, but people need to contact our office if they had an open case," she said.

It's a thought echoed by Grisanti.

"Why destroy information that my staff members need to know: Who has meetings scheduled, etc.? We've been forced to tell people that there are no documents or files here, and hopefully they have kept copies that can help us get up-to-speed on their cases," he said.

Del Monte stated that she left the office as she found it a decade ago when she was first elected. That seems a bit like the defense used by fraternity members when they get charged with hazing offenses: "Well, they did it to me and now it was my turn to do it to someone else."

Certainly, it is not a sentiment shared by Maziarz.

"When I was elected Niagara County clerk I was a Republican, and I defeated an incumbent Democrat, and all of the files were intact, and we actually met prior to go over some active files," Maziarz said. "To say that the way they (Del Monte and Thompson) did it is how it is done is absolutely ridiculous, and I don't think the voters of the future will forget it."

It would seem that a more civil discourse would be better suited for all involved.

The sponsors of the bill say that it has great support and that they expect it to pass with ease in both the Senate and the Assembly.

"The same thing happened elsewhere in the state, and it wasn't just Democrats versus Republicans," Ceretto stated. "This has bipartisan support across the board."

That is the silver lining that this unnecessary rain cloud cries out for.

The citizens of Niagara Falls have enough on their plate without having to worry about being a sacrificed pawn in a political chess endgame.

If the quote that opened this column were an analogy of the events of "Filegate," it would be easy to discern who the two inferred runners represent. A bit trickier is to unravel where the citizens of the Cataract City factor in.

I have faith that the puzzle-solvers among you have figured out that we're the baton that should have been skillfully passed, but instead was left carelessly rolling on the ground by the runners who had just finished their leg of the race.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com Jan. 25, 2011