MOU matter still unresolved
By Terry Duffy
What was anticipated to be a brief work session Monday for the Lewiston Town Board didn't go exactly as planned.
Rather, the session delved into a multitude of topics. With Supervisor Steve Broderick absent and the Easter holiday at hand, actual Town Board business on the agenda was rather limited.
But discussion topics were certainly there.
Included were financials, such as a resolution for a Niagara River Greenway $38,850 funding application that, once approved, would see the Morgan Lewis bust become part of the Lewiston Peace Garden. Also included was news that Greenway approved $13,958 in funding toward the Mohawk trail project.
But one topic that really stood out over others that night was the still non-settled issue of Town Board cable TV broadcasts, coupled with residents' concerns of transparency and public access. It's an issue that has been one of contention with the Lewiston Taxpayers Accountability and Action Alliance for months. And the matter resurfaced in the public forum Monday.
Paulette Glasgow of the Alliance inquired to the board and to both Ryan Parisi and A. Joseph Catalano, attorneys for the town, as to why the continued delays in providing what she deemed a memorandum of understanding said to exist between the town and Niagara County Community College for the cable TV broadcasts. She charged the Town Board has been in possession of the document since January.
At issue is an agreement with Time Warner Cable (now Spectrum), where Lewiston was provided earlier with a T/W grant in excess of $9,000 to enable it to broadcast Town Board meetings via Lockport Community Television (LCTV). The town would be expected to secure the needed equipment, provide a means for broadcasting, and also create an itinerary or curriculum where student interns would be utilized to help facilitate the venture.
Problem is the matter remains unsettled, with the town Cable Commission reportedly still addressing a host of logistical items, from actually securing equipment to establishing an agreement with an entity for a curriculum, to addressing the various legal issues involved.
"Five months ago, I submitted a freedom of information request for access to a memorandum of understanding between the town and Niagara County to use the facilities at NCCC to broadcast public meetings," Glasgow wrote in a letter. "And for the past five months every roadblock imaginable has been utilized to deny me access of a public record. One would think I was asking for access to state secrets."
Glasgow argued the MOU has been ready since January for Broderick's signature, and should be public record. She alleged the attorneys for the town were holding up its release.
However, the matter of a MOU reached between the town and NCCC reportedly does not even exist, argued Town Councilman Bill Geiben. He has been spearheading this project with the board and both attorneys for the town.
Glasgow heard, that night, the sought-for MOU document remained in "draft form" and thus was not able to be provided her at this time.
She was not welcoming to their explanation.
"Mr. Catalano, Mr. Parisi said their letter was in draft form. Under the law, in draft form, I'm entitled to it. Whether it's signed or not, whether we have an agreement with NCCC or not, I'm entitled to it. I would hope you would give me that," Glasgow said.
Discussions continued back and forth on the existence of an actual MOU, of its Freedom of Information Law status, and of Town Board transparency. Geiben and the two attorneys went on to argue the document, even if it existed, was deemed not final and thus need not be released.
"Is it possible that what you're asking for does not exist?" Geiben asked. He told Glasgow he continues to search for the MOU and cannot find it. "If you're just looking for the communications between us and NCCC, perhaps I can find that."
"If it's in draft form ... I'm entitled to it," Glasgow reiterated.
"I can say I never presented a copy of anything to the board for Mr. Broderick's signature, regarding a memorandum of understanding," Catalano said. He said the MOU remained as a document not finalized and deemed applicable for release.
Parisi commented, "When the town gets a FOIL request, it comes to us. I follow what the law says, whether the document should be turned over or not. I disagree in general with the characterization that, slam-dunk, this document should be turned over, and you're stonewalling me by just not turning it over.
"The key in this particular instance is that it's an interagency action that is being taken. It's an action between the town and another instrumentality - that being NCCC. Where it's interagency action and no final action has been taken, those documents aren't FOIL-able. So you don't have any entitlement to those documents.
"I reviewed what Mrs. Glasgow presented from the Committee on Open Government, and, in their email, they specifically asked, 'Well, was this memorandum signed between these two agencies?' And I think they (Open Government) were asking that because, if it's an interagency action, that has to be a final action in order for it to be legal. That's why that document hasn't been turned over."
Glasgow continued to argue otherwise, citing appellate court cases to back her contention. "If it is in draft form, it's accessible. It doesn't matter," she said.
Parisi replied, "As an attorney, I follow the law. So my analysis after this was that this document cannot be turned over. And that's my legal opinion."
Catalano said he upheld its release, because he agreed with Parisi's interpretation of the law.
Glasgow continued to argue the MOU is a public record.
As discussions closed, Geiben, echoing frustration, went on to term the whole MOU matter with Glasgow as, "building a mountain out of a mole hill."