Do Niagara County Legislators Support Open Government?

BY PAUL WOLF, ESQ.

While Buffalo and Erie County have their share of open government and ethical issues, Niagara County seems to be years behind on basic items.  Earlier this year when Wm. Keith McNall became Chair of the Niagara County Legislature he told fellow lawmakers.  “The challenges county government faces today are unending, and I will try to lead our Legislature in the proper direction.”

When Randy R. Bradt, became majority leader, in January, he told colleagues his goal was to ensure the majority remained aligned to its governing principles. “Every policy decision we make, every statement we utter, must be judged by one metric: Does it further our governing principles? Is it in line with our repeatedly expressed values?” Bradt said. “This caucus has succeeded because it stands for something.”

As elected representatives of the people, Niagara County Legislators should make it clear that they value and stand for open government and move in that direction.

Placing Citizen Concerns on the Agenda

Citizens can place items on the agenda of the Buffalo Common Council, Amherst Town Board and the Erie County Legislature. A simple email and your issue or concerns can be put before elected leaders to address. Your item may be discussed or it may be simply received and filed without any action but at least your concern can be on the agenda.

Apparently No such process exists in Niagara County. The Chairman of the Legislature decides what gets placed on the meeting agenda. The Chairman despite my attempts to contact him seems unwilling to discuss how citizen concerns can be placed on the agenda.

Why Aren’t Meeting Minutes Posted?

Most municipalities smaller than Niagara County post meeting minutes. Heck you can view meeting minutes of many PTA organizations, volunteer committees etc, but you cannot view minutes of the Niagara County Legislature meetings. Meeting minutes simply are not posted in Niagara County. Without meeting minutes the public has no way of knowing how a legislator voted on any item!

Why Aren’t Meetings Recorded?

You can actually watch many governmental meetings live on-line or watch a video recording of the meeting at a later time. Being able to watch a governmental meeting from home on your computer is a great way for citizens to stay informed and learn about what their elected leaders are doing. Niagara County Legislature meetings are not recorded.

How Do Citizens Find Out About the Niagara County Board of Ethics?

Niagara County has a five-member Board of Ethics, whose members are selected by the Chair of the Niagara County Legislature and approved by a majority of the Legislators. Good luck finding out any information about who the Ethics Board members are, what they do and when their meetings are. The Ethics Board does not have a web site of their own and no information is on the Niagara County web site. Such information is available in many other communities but for some reason not in Niagara County.

Why Can’t Citizens View Financial Disclosure Forms?

Elected officials and county department heads are required to complete and file a financial disclosure form yearly. The purpose of the disclosure form is to report income, property and business dealings that may be a conflict of interest. In Buffalo, Erie County and municipalities across New York State a citizen or the news media can request a copy of an elected officials disclosure form. New York State puts the disclosure forms of all statewide elected officials and every member of the state legislature on-line for everyone to see.

It is actually against the law in Niagara County for a citizen or member of the news media to obtain a copy of a disclosure form filed by a government official. A local law passed by the Niagara County Legislature states that only the Ethics Board, the District Attorney and the Sheriff can view disclosure forms which are otherwise sealed from public view and destroyed after five years.

Will Someone Stand Up For Open Government?

Addressing any or all of the five items stated above would be a big step in the right direction for Niagara County. Chairman McNall, Majority Leader Bradt or any member of the Legislature can show they value open government by submitting proposals to change how Niagara County operates. It will be interesting to see if any legislators are willing to stand up for open government principles.