By Benjamin Joe
The Buffalo Niagara Coalition for Open Government is a group that monitors the compliance of municipalities with open government laws. These include towns and cities in both Erie and Niagara counties to agencies such as the City of Lockport Housing Authority.
Recently, Paul Wolf, an organizer for the group, announced the BNCOG is suing the Niagara County Legislature for its alleged non-compliance with state law by holding financial disclosure statements of government officials from the public’s scrutiny. The organization is doing this with the help of the University at Buffalo Law School Civil Liberties and Transparency Clinic.
“The UB clinic started a couple years ago, right around the time the Coalition for Open Government was starting,” Wolf said. “I had made contact with them and they’ve come to several of our meetings. We stayed in touch and I just raised the idea with this issue being a possible project that they might be interested in. They took a look at it and did become interested and have filed a lawsuit for us.”
In a press release on the issue, Wolf and the BNCOG wrote that the Niagara County Legislature is the only legislature in the state to keep the financial disclosures of its officials private. After pressure, the release said the Niagara County Legislature did concede the point by passing into law that any “disclosure forms filed in 2019 and thereafter (are) subject to FOIL.” However, any other financial disclosure statements from 2018 going back still remain secret.
“Niagara County is unusual in that they have this law that all of their disclosure forms were secret and confidential,” Wolf said. “But in 2019 they made a change saying that any forms filed in 2019 or thereafter would be subject to FOIL, but we still disagree with that law. We think under the Freedom of Information Law, none of their disclosure forms should be secret.
“Niagara County passed the law in 1996 saying no one in the public could see the disclosure forms, the only ones allowed to see were the sheriff’s department, the district attorney and their ethics board.”
Wolf said his own research indicated no other county in the state has such a local law on the books.
“Under the Freedom of Information Law, all government records are presumed to be open and available, unless they fall under an exception,” Wolf said. “We just don’t see any exception that disclosure forms that fall under. I have gotten copies of Erie County Legislature disclosure forms without any issue. All state elected officials, their disclosure forms are actually, by law, posted online.
“But not Niagara County, as I said, Niagara County appears to be a whole other world. They’re going to have a hard time explaining why someone can have a 2019 form, but not a 2018 form.”
The lawsuit was filed 4:30 p.m. Tuesday.
“It’s going to be assigned to a Niagara County judge, we don’t know what judge it will be assigned to,” Wolf said. “I assume Niagara County will submit a legal memo explaining their position as to why they think they are in compliance with the law. Judges encourage people to make an agreement and settle. Niagara County could pull back and change their law and release the five years of forms that they have still on file that the public is not allowed to see. So, we’ll see whether the judge signals which way he thinks about this, which is often how these things go.”
Public Information Officer Kevin Schuler sent the following comment from the legislature.
“The Legislature changed the law to release all ethic disclosure filings going forward. This lawsuit seeks information from previous years that was given by employees under the previous local law that guaranteed non-disclosure beyond the Board of Ethics, the County Sheriff and District Attorney. We feel compelled to comply with that law unless a Court tells us otherwise.”
“I hope the quicker this resolves, the less legal fees county residents might get stuck with, because the UB law clinic has the right to ask for legal fees for the time they’ve spent on this matter,” Wolf said. “It would be unfortunate for county residents not only to not be able to see this information, but to then have to pay legal fees on top of it, that would be unfortunate.”