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Delays, Delays

After waiting a week, common council hears ethics charges

Councilmembers finally got the chance to publicly weigh in on the controversy surrounding a July 6 Buffalo News article revealing that Commissioner of Community Services Tanya Perrin-Johnson sent out several emails to City Hall staff, expecting them to volunteer for Mayor Byron Brown’s reelection campaign. The emails listed volunteer opportunities and asked them to contribute at least eight hours a week. After several thwarted attempts to rush the matter on to the agenda at the July 7 Council meeting, South District Councilmember Michael Kearns was silenced. But on Tuesday, the mayoral candidate got his say.

Kearns drafted two letters to the City Board of Ethics and another to the New York State Commission on Public Integrity calling for an investigation into the emails. In the letter, Kearns accuses the Perrin-Johnson of “insensitivity,” a “cavalier attitude” toward the City Charter and appearing to “lack a moral barometer ... expected of a person in a high supervisory capacity, which at a minimum includes the ability to distinguish right from wrong,”

The City Charter plainly states: “A city officer or employee shall not knowingly request or knowingly authorize anyone else to request in his or her name any direct subordinate of the officer or employee to participate in an election campaign or contribute to a political committee.”

But Kearns did not stop at the letters. He drafted an Employment Protection Act in reaction to the issue, but it wasn’t acted upon at Tuesday’s meeting. He knew city employees could not come forward to say if they felt pressured to volunteer, for fear of losing their jobs. “People are afraid in this building,” Kearns says.

On the matter as a whole, North District Councilmember Joseph Golombek expressed concerns about the long-term effect of employees working on their employer’s campaigns. “Buffalo is a governmental body. If they work for the individual, they have a chance of a job long-term,” he says. “Instead of smoke and mirrors, we need to look at real reform, changing the way our government does business.”

Golombek echoed his former cry for a city manager form of government. This would eliminate the need for campaigning, petitioning and scrounging for volunteers.

Masten District Councilmember Demone Smith, traditionally a Brown supporter, was adamant that the judgement be made by the Board of Ethics, a city watchdog group. “They’re all required due process by an impartial panel,” he says. “Don’t try to disguise politics as reform.” He also suggested the emails may have been tampered with and not sent by Perrin-Johnson at all. “Before you pass dispersion, let the Board investigate,” Smith says.

Even if an Employee Protection Act is considered further, it would not affect the November mayoral election. In the meantime, councilmembers will be on August recess and will no doubt bring the matter up again when they reconvene.

ellen przepasniak

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