Confidential Disclosure, Back Room Meetings & Armed Guards

June 20, 2018

Paul Wolf
Last night several members of the Buffalo Niagara Coalition for Open Government attended the Niagara County Legislature meeting. Our goal in attending was to encourage the Legislature to amend the Niagara County Ethics Code by making the annual financial disclosure forms completed by county officials a public record. Under your existing Ethics Code, disclosure forms are confidential and not available to the public. On June 12, 2018, our organization forwarded a letter to every legislator, which referenced court decisions and a New York State Committee on Open Government opinion, stating disclosure forms are considered a public document.
Niagara County attorney Claude Joerg stated his disagreement to my interpretation of the law and court decisions. I respectfully disagree with what Mr. Jorge stated at the meeting. While it is certainly not uncommon for two attorneys to have different views of the law, the issue is why are disclosure forms in Niagara County confidential but available to the public in Erie County, Buffalo, Cheektowaga, Niagara Falls, Lancaster, Amherst, Tonawanda, Clarence, and Hamburg? Litigation in court aside, how are you as elected officials going to be able to win in the court of public opinion? The Buffalo News and the Niagara Gazette have already done editorials in support of making Niagara County disclosure forms public. How are any of you going to be able to convince your constituents and the public at large that your disclosure forms should be confidential? Good government is open government and perception is reality. Refusing to make your disclosure forms public, fuels the perception that you have something to hide.
On another topic, I was shocked to learn that in the middle of your meeting a recess is often called for the purpose of holding a legislative committee meeting, which members of the public are not allowed to attend. According to the Legislature’s Clerk Mary Jo Tamburlin, the news media are able to attend the committee meeting but the public cannot because the room used is too small. If the room for a legislative committee meeting is too small to accommodate the public then a different room has to be used.
In order to access the back room where the committee meeting is held, one has to open a swinging gate door to walk across to the committee room. When one of our members opened and crossed the gate to speak to a legislator an armed deputy advised the individual that they had to stay on the other side of the gate. Holding a legislative committee meeting in a back room where members of the public are not allowed to observe and are prevented for doing so by an armed guard, is a clear violation of the New York State Open meetings law. This practice has to stop immediately! How this practice which according to Ms. Tamburlin has been allowed to continue for at least ten years is beyond me.
As elected legislators, you have the ability to change all of these items. Who is willing to stand up in favor of ending confidential disclosure, back room meetings and having armed guards stop the public from attending your committee meeting?
Paul Wolf, Esq.
James Tricoli
Vice President
Buffalo Niagara Coalition for Open Government, Inc.

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