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Mayor Brown's Stonewalling of Public Records is Unacceptable

The public has a right to know what government officials are doing. The New York State Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) allows citizens to request the ability to review or obtain copies of government records. The federal Freedom of Information Law was enacted in 1966. New York State adopted its own FOIL act in 1974.

In 2009, after being jerked around on several Freedom of Information requests made to the Brown administration, the Buffalo News in complete frustration wrote an editorial stating:

The law is clear. When we request city records, you must provide them, completely and in a timely manner.

But you aren’t exactly following the law at the moment.

You’re stonewalling.

So, with all due respect, Mayor, cut it out.

It is astonishing that such an editorial had to be written. In addition to giving the Buffalo News and Artvoice a hard time about providing public documents, the Brown administration in 2010 forced the Common Council to submit FOIL requests to obtain information about the City’s block grant budget. After delays and receiving an incomplete response, the Common Council had to threaten to use their subpoena powers in order to obtain information they were legally entitled to.

As examples of how transparent his administration is Byron Brown points to listing the salaries of all city employees on the city web site and the videotaping of CitiStat Buffalo meetings. The listing of public employee salaries is a pretty weak success and the administration is less than forthcoming about CitiStat Buffalo meetings, as I can personally attest to.

We don’t need to tell you and we won’t

At CitiStat meetings the mayor and several top-level appointees question department heads in a public forum that is video tapped and shown on the government access channel. The meetings often seem like a self-congratulatory press conference but at times can be informative as to the inner workings of government. A schedule is not listed anywhere on the city web site as to what departments are appearing when at CitiStat meetings. When I attempted to find out what department was appearing at an upcoming CitiStat meeting, I was told that the city’s law department would answer my inquiry. I could not believe that such a simple question could not be answered without involving the city law department.

I actually received a written response from the law department stating that legally they did not have to tell me who was appearing at a CitiStat meeting and as such they were not going to tell me.

Wow! So much for open and transparent government. What is the big secret? I just wanted to know what department was appearing at a meeting that is open to the public and televised.

At one time the PowerPoint slides that are shown at CitiStat meetings were available on the city’s web site. The PowerPoint slides contained interesting statistical information about the work being performed at each city department. For whatever reason, a decision was made to remove the slides from the city web site. Each member of the CitiStat panel has a copy of the PowerPoint slides being displayed. When I asked whether I could have a copy of the PowerPoint slides, I was informed that I would have to file a FOIL request. An administration that truly valued citizen participation would have no problem providing an extra copy of information being discussed at a meeting or even emailing an electronic copy after the meeting.

After the scathing editorial in 2009 by the Buffalo News criticizing the mayor for how FOIL requests were being handled, a meeting was held between city officials and the Buffalo News. The city stated that it would be more responsive to such requests. However, nothing really has changed.

Yet another example

The latest example of Byron Brown’s administration jerking the news media and the public around on a FOIL request is the conviction of former high-ranking employee Timothy Wanamaker. In November 2011, Wanamaker pled guilty to using a city credit card for personal expenses totaling $30,000. Over a period of 15 months the Buffalo News filed several FOIL requests with the Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corporation, requesting Wanamaker’s travel and expense account records. The expenditure of taxpayer dollars is public information that BERC provided to the FBI and HUD but refused to provide to the Buffalo News.

Failing to release public records over a 15-month period is simply unacceptable.If Byron Brown was truly supportive of open and transparent government, the city would comply with the law. Brown could make it clear to his department heads and employees that he supports the right of the public to know and anyone not complying with the law will be reprimanded.

The Common Council and City Comptroller need to act

If Brown is not going to operate city government in an open and transparent way, then the Common Council needs to implement some policy changes.

New York City Public Advocate Bill de Blasio recently reviewed the Freedom of Information requests submitted to 18 city agencies over a three-monh period. De Blasio released a report titled “Breaking Through Bureaucracy” and issued a letter grade for how well each agency handles FOIL requests.

Similar steps can and should be taken in Buffalo. While Buffalo does not have a public advocate position, perhaps the City Comptroller could conduct an audit of how FOIL requests are being handled. Under the City Charter, the Comptroller has the authority to conduct not only financial audits but performance audits as well to determine whether laws are being complied with and intended results are being achieved. A City Comptroller audit of FOIL requests can and should be done.

In addition to a City Comptroller audit regarding compliance with the Freedom of Information Law, the City Council could enact the following legislative items:

• Strengthen the oversight of FOIL responsiveness by adopting legislation to require monthly reporting to the City Council regarding the status of all FOIL requests, as well as annual reporting to the public.

• Provide training. Record access officers at city agencies should receive annual training on FOIL compliance, which is available at no cost through the New York State Committee on Open Government.

• Ensure greater accountability through semi-annual reviews of each city department/agency’s FOIL compliance.

• Adopt an open government policy mandating that all city agencies must proactively publish commonly requested records online.

• Engage concerned citizens by forming a citizen’s advisory board dedicated to making city government more open and transparent.

Noncompliance with a law whose purpose is to provide citizens information should not be tolerated. The Common Council and the City Comptroller should take action to ensure that the public’s right to know is not being violated.

Paul Wolf is the president and founder of the Center For Reinventing Government, Inc. (www.reinventinggov.org)

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