The Niagara County Legislature issued the following statement Tuesday:
"The Niagara USA Chamber of Commerce is opposed to the Niagara County Legislature's resolutions, IL-034-04 and IL-003-05, committing the county to enter into an agreement for payment of legal fees for a private attorney hired by environmental group Residents for Responsible Government to fight the expansion of Chemical Waste Management (CWM).
"While the chamber takes no stance on the Legislature debating the issue of CWM's expansion, we feel it is inappropriate for the county to commit taxpayer money to a private organization without following proper protocol such as issuing an RFP for such a large expenditure. According to the county's own standards approved in Resolution AD-009-11on April 5, 2011, under the section entitled (sic) 'Guidelines for Professional Services Contracts,' any expenditure over $20,000 must be required to request an RFP. Further, any multiyear contract must obtain RFPs even if each year's expenditure is less than $20,000. This 'arrangement,' as it has been called, dates from 2005, so it clearly would fall under the multiyear guidelines. If this spending should fall under the county's current protocol (April 2011), and as a recent resolution directs the Niagara County attorney to 'draw up the needed engagement letter for legal services,' this would be a contract for 'professional services' and be subject to those requirements. The county's guidelines do state that any guidelines can be waived if deemed necessary by a majority of the Legislature. However, the county does employ a county attorney, so it would be questionable as to why an outside 'contractor' must be brought in instead of using county resources.
"The same people who would condemn the County Legislature for this type of waiver on other matters have been in full support of this one. This contradiction implies a decision without a real basis or justification. It is up to elected officials to represent all of their constituents, including those employees of CWM. How is it fair to take their money in taxes and then use that very money to potentially take away their jobs? This proposal opens the floodgates to using taxpayer money unnecessarily and it should not be acceptable."
Editor's note: Both Sentinel editor Terry Duffy, who covers the environmental beat, and Lewiston resident Amy Witryol, an outspoken opponent of CWM, have questioned the chamber's claims with regard to RRG receiving public funding for legal representation. Duffy said the county and the Town of Lewiston jointly agreed to look into the hiring of an attorney. Witryol said the directive did not come from the county.
Duffy is waiting to hear back from legislators Bill Ross and Clyde Burmaster. RRG was also given an opportunity to provide comment.
Christian Peck, the Niagara County public information officer, said the Legislature has come to view RFPs as a prudent course of action. He said legislators view the RFP process as an essential policy tool to protect the interest of the county taxpayers.
At 1:42 p.m. Wednesday, the chamber issued a "clarification," which reads:
"The Niagara USA Chamber stands behind its opinion that more information needs to be forthcoming about the county's allocation of resources to hire outside legal counsel to fight the CWM expansion and concern over the precedent this could set in using taxpayer dollars in the future against any legitimate business that is operating legally within Niagara County.
"That is the crux of our concerns, in addition to the lack of any transparent procurement process that has been followed. To date, hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent on this endeavor. Even though this is a professional service, good public practice dictates an open, transparent procurement process where the best talent is hired at the best price.
"With that, it has been brought to our attention that some of our statements may not be factually accurate, particularly that the county provides funding for RRG to hire this attorney. Instead, it appears the county hires the attorney directly, though as evidenced by recent press accounts, RRG is heavily engaged with this attorney.
"The chamber did talk with county personnel regarding procurement in general, and this hiring in particular, and received some contradictory information. This again highlights the need for better transparency in this and future transactions."
Second update: Later Wednesday afternoon, 2nd District Niagara County Legislator Clyde Burmaster of Ransomville called the chamber's memo "a document put out ... without the proper investigation."
"The memo is full of inaccuracies," Burmaster said, adding, "it sure would have been nice if they went through this accurately."
Burmaster faulted the Niagara USA Chamber on many fronts.
He cited the chamber's lack of familiarity with the county attorney's office's procedures regarding requests for proposals. He noted the county pursued the hiring of an environmental attorney years ago in the interests of residents, following the state's establishment of a siting board procedure for consideration of future hazardous waste facilities. Burmaster said Residents For Responsible Government had no role whatsoever in the county opting to pursue an environmental attorney in the first place.
"They failed to consult with our attorney on this," he said of the chamber's memo.
"I read this to be a CWM endorsement memo versus (concerns over an) RFP," Burmaster said.