Section: MAIN,  Page: A1

Date: Friday, August 15, 1997

Twice a month, the president of the Common Council bangs a gavel, keeps a meeting moving along and once in a blue moon gets to break a tie or tell someone they're out of order. Not exactly a power job. Yet the Democratic primary for the $25,653-a-year post, next in line of succession to the mayor, has drawn three contenders and more spending than any campaign outside the mayor's race.

Incumbent Robert Van Amburgh, 50, in the toughest fight of his 14-year political career, is pitted against Helen Desfosses, a veteran candidate backed by party liberals, and Gregory Burch, a political newcomer.

While the candidates talk of such topics as more budgetary power for Albany's traditionally weak council, one issue is unquestionably central in the race: Van Amburgh.

Burch, 40, the only one of the three candidates not in public service, has built his campaign around Van Amburgh's $116,000 in earnings as council president and Albany High School social studies supervisor. Burch faults Van Amburgh for his close ties to Mayor Jerry Jennings, a former Albany High vice principal, and questions where Van Amburgh's loyalties lie.

``Bob has lost his independence, and he rarely seems to put the voters first,'' argues Burch. ``It's one thing to be a team player. It's another thing to be a yes man.''

Desfosses, a 52-year-old political scientist and associate provost at the University at Albany's Rockefeller College of Public Affairs, describes the race as a chance to ``disentangle the school system from City Hall'' and to choose a council leader independent of the mayor.

``The voters have the clearest choice for this seat that they've ever had,'' said Desfosses. ``Do they want a council president who's run as a liaison to the mayor, or do they want a council president who's an independent legislative leader?''

In the middle of a two-pronged attack, Van Amburgh has no apologies for his public compensation, stating he has worked for it.

``Over the years, my life has really been involved with helping people, and with that came appropriate remuneration,'' he said. ``There's no such thing as a free lunch. I'm not the one that determined the salaries.''

As for his close relationship with Jennings, Van Amburgh said he sees himself as a liaison. One of three council members who meet regularly with Jennings -- along with the President Pro Tempore David R. Torncello III and Democratic Majority Leader Harold Greenstein -- Van Amburgh said he represents the council to the mayor without being confrontational.

``There has to be a working relationship regardless of who holds the position,'' Van Amburgh said. ``My whole approach is predicated on compromise over conflict.''

Conflict, however, has been a subtext in the race. Despite Desfosses' early call to refrain from challenging each other's nominating petitions, Burch was knocked off the ballot by the county Board of Elections after a challenge from Van Amburgh's side last month. Burch won the spot back in Supreme Court but now faces an appeal. Burch, who has failed to file required financial disclosures in the race but says he raised about $6,000 so far, estimates the ballot fight will cost him $5,000 to $10,000. Van Amburgh and Desfosses together appear poised to spend another $44,000 between them on the race.

Van Amburgh says he is not directly involved in the petition fight and offered no comment on it other than to say that any bills will be paid.

Libby Post, a political consultant working on the Desfosses campaign, said Van Amburgh's camp fears voters who might not cast a ballot for Desfosses will consider another male candidate, Burch, and dilute Van Amburgh's support.

``They're threatened by him,'' said Post. ``Burch would draw from Van Amburgh before he would draw from Desfosses.''

The three candidates do not appear to disagree much on other major issues. With a review of Albany's charter under way, they all support greater budgetary power and a separate office and staff for the council, including an attorney. With most legislation now initiated by the mayor, they agree on the idea of more council-driven bills.

Van Amburgh, the former 13th Ward alderman who became council president upon the death of Joseph Lynn in 1995, took a low-profile approach until last fall. Van Amburgh said that was mainly because he had not wanted to be perceived ``as someone who was not respectful of years of public service that (Lynn) provided to the city.''

But Van Amburgh says he has supported a more independent council. He arranged meetings with Schenectady and Troy officials to talk about governing and common problems. Council leaders have met regularly with aldermen to try to work out disputes and discuss goals. More responsibility has been given council committees. Van Amburgh said he envisions a time when department heads routinely meet with aldermen to discuss pending proposals -- getting away from having the city administration simply send legislation to the council.

Desfosses, an unsuccessful candidate for the city school board in 1985 and state Assembly in 1992, said the council could take a stronger role in city government by exercising its power to appoint members to the Board of Assessment Review and Albany Local Development Corp.

She suggests that even in the absence of wider budgetary power, the council should draft an alternative to the budget the mayor proposes, hold hearings on the alternate plan and solicit more advice from the public.

Desfosses proposes an Albany Internet site where job openings, hearings and decisions would be posted. She also urges newsletters from aldermen and cable TV coverage of council meetings.

Desfosses also wants the council's large chambers redesigned. The public -- at the back of the room, separated by a brass bar and gates -- is ``in steerage. . . . If ever there was a layout designed to inhibit public input, that is it.''

Burch, a sales engineer and regional manager for APV Crepaco and Walker Stainless and son of former 10th Ward Alderman Thomas Burch, argues mostly in general terms for greater council independence. He said he would like to reinstate the council's travel budget and allow aldermen to study how other cities operate and address problems, ``as opposed to us reinventing the wheel.'' FACTS:CANDIDATES FORUM The Albany County League of Women Voters will hold a forum featuring Common Council president candidates Gregory Burch, Helen Desfosses and incumbent Robert Van Amburgh 7 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 27, at the Albany Public Library main branch at 161 Washington Ave. All three candidates will be allowed opening and closing statements, and screened questions will be asked by the audience.