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Lawsuit over extreme secrecy in Niagara County government being considered

Mike Desmond
Common Cause Executive Director Susan Lerner (left) and Reinvent Albany Senior Policy Advisor Alex Camarda accept their awards at the TR Site.

New York State's government is in bad shape, but there is so much secrecy it is hard to tell how bad. That was the message Wednesday night, as two public interest groups were honored for trying to open government and uncover what is there.

It was the Buffalo Niagara Coalition for Open Government's chance to give awards to local people and groups trying to improve government transparency. It also brought in two statewide voices, Common Cause Executive Director Susan Lerner and Reinvent Albany Senior Policy Advisor Alex Camarda.

Both told the meeting at the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural Site of the problems in a state government where so much occurs out of sight.

"If we're looking at our elections laws, if we're looking at our transparency, we're looking at sunshine in government and accountability and the grade is somewhere between F+ and a D-," said Lerner.

Coalition President Paul Wolf told the group in attendance the organization is considering filing a lawsuit against Niagara County for its extreme secrecy in keeping closed financial disclosure forms filed by officials in county government. He said court decisions and legal opinions require the disclosure forms should be public.

"The public, the news media should be able to see, are there any conflicts of interest going on here," Wolf said. "So we have been encouraging them to change their law. I hope they do so. They recently formed a committee to take a look at it. I don't know how complicated it is, quite honestly, but we hope it doesn't come to it, but if need be, we are considering filing a lawsuit."

Camarda said organizations like the University at Buffalo Foundation should be required to list their finances publicly.

"We think any non-profits doing government work should be subject to the same laws as government agencies,:" Camarada said. "So they should be subject to Freedom of Information Laws. They should conduct their meetings openly. They should have the same laws for procuring goods and services as any government agency."

The foundation has long argued it is not an agency subject to state transparency laws. It is UB's endowment, spending as leaders want.

Mike Desmond is one of Western New York’s most experienced reporters, having spent nearly a half-century covering the region for newspapers, television stations and public radio. He has been with WBFO and its predecessor, WNED-AM, since 1988. As a reporter for WBFO, he has covered literally thousands of stories involving education, science, business, the environment and many other issues. Mike has been a long-time theater reviewer for a variety of publications and was formerly a part-time reporter for The New York Times.
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