Erie County Democrats appear to be headed toward a free-for-all climax to their contest for party chairman following a new agreement between local and state politicos that sets the stage for a secret-ballot election Sept. 29.

Several sources close to the situation say Lt. Gov. Robert J. Duffy and County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz agreed this week to stay out of the four-way contest for chairman and allow the full county committee to make the decision. That could result in a new chairman leading upstate New York's largest concentration of Democrats without even a hint of unity, while negating Poloncarz's stated desire to have a say in the choice.

"I just think this is a free-for-all," said one top Democrat close to the situation who asked not to be identified. "It makes it much more difficult to get consensus.

"Once he's elected, he'll have an awfully hard time governing this party."

Another source said the agreement means that Poloncarz will now not publicly endorse Jeremy J. Zellner, the County Legislature chief of staff widely viewed as his choice; while Duffy will not express the Cuomo camp's interest in Frank C. Max Jr., the Cheektowaga chairman.

The murky situation stems from a more than year-old effort initiated by top party officials close to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who were concerned about continual infighting in one of the few counties that voted for Republican Carl P. Paladino in the 2010 gubernatorial election. That resulted in a 2011 agreement brokered by Charlie King, a top Cuomo confidant, paving the way for the ouster of Chairman Leonard R. Lenihan - a political foe of Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown, a Cuomo ally.

While the Cuomo forces successfully achieved Lenihan's departure, they failed to install Anthony M. Masiello as the new chairman. The former Buffalo mayor, also a Cuomo ally, took himself out of contention for the post earlier this month after some questioned the wisdom of an Albany lobbyist as chairman of the party and others rebelled against a leader "imposed" by the governor.

"The state stuck in its nose and got swatted," said another top Democrat. "Now it's trying to extricate itself."

Poloncarz told The Buffalo News at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., that he would name his choice for chairman during the course of last week. But the week passed with no follow-through.

Tuesday, the county executive acknowledged that the situation has changed.

"I won't be endorsing anybody," Poloncarz said.

"It's certainly evident from my discussions with others that nobody feels a decision should be made for them. I will cast a ballot at the meeting, and everybody else will have that opportunity, too."

The county executive said he did not want to put any committee member in the position of having to follow his direction.

"The process should just play itself out," Poloncarz said.

Top local Democrats say Duffy was in Buffalo on Monday to meet with Brown and party officials. His presence represents a new "from a distance" interest on the governor's part, those Democrats say, plus an acknowledgement that local committee members will eventually make the decision by secret ballot.

Lenihan, who as departing chairman will preside over election of the new leader in a morning meeting at the Hearthstone Manor in Depew on Sept. 29, said the secret-ballot rule was adopted in 2002 after the tumultuous 2000 meeting that resulted in the re-election of then-Chairman G. Steven Pigeon.

At the moment, most Democratic observers say that none of the four contenders is established as the front-runner.

Besides Zellner and Max, they include attorney Marc C. Panepinto, who has strong connections to West Side Democrats close to former Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, and James J. Eagan, a Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority commissioner who has served as a leading Poloncarz fundraiser and hosted a meet-and-greet event for committee members at Statler City on Tuesday evening.

"I think everyone has a shot," Lenihan said Tuesday. "I don't see anyone with a clear lead at this point."

Veteran party members say the secret ballot nixes chances for a "brokered convention" when the Democratic Committee meets later this month, since any deals reached by town and zone chairmen could be ignored when ballots are marked by the estimated 1,100 to 1,600 committee members who are expected to attend.

"In a brokered convention, you have chairmen making deals and you have to stand up and be counted," said one top Democrat who wished to remain anonymous. "With a secret ballot, that means nothing."