Weekly Feature

2018-06-07 / Front Page

Town gets high marks from local watchdog group in new report


The Town of Cheektowaga’s disclosure requirements for its elected officials are among the most stringent in Western New York, according to the Buffalo Niagara Coalition for Open Government, a nonpartisan, nonprofit good-government group.

The nonprofit released a report Tuesday evaluating 10 local governments on 16 criteria that the group said should be included on disclosure forms, and Cheektowaga received the best ranking, having addressed 12 of 16, or 75 percent, of the items. Erie County also received top marks, equaling Cheektowaga by addressing 12 of the 16 items, the group found.

Those benchmarks included: outside employers and businesses, investments, real estate, gifts, political contributions, relatives employed by the municipality, volunteer positions, money owed, money owed to the individual, customers and clients, interest in contracts with the municipality, political party relationships, third-party reimbursements, future employment, past employment and certification of the information.

The criteria relied heavily on a model form created by Mark Davies, former executive director of the NYC Conflicts of Interest Board and former executive director of the Temporary State Commission on Local Government Ethics, but the coalition added its own criteria, such as the questions about future employment.

New York State Law requires that municipalities of at least 50,000 people file disclosure forms. However, it is largely up to each locality to develop the criteria, meaning information — and availability — can vary widely, according to Paul Wolf, an attorney and the coalition’s president.

“The form really only asks for kind of what’s required by your ethics code, at least it should only ask for what’s required by your ethics code, so really what this points out to us is that a lot of local governments need to revisit their ethics code and strengthen it,” he said.

For example, Cheektowaga’s value threshold for gifts is $25, meaning elected officials who receive goods, services or gifts worth $25 or more, must report them on financial disclosure forms. Compare that $25 limit, the strictest of the 10 governments included in the report, to Niagara Falls and Erie County, where the threshold is $1,000, or Amherst, Clarence or Tonawanda, which don’t specifically ask about gifts.

Wolf also pointed to disclosing relatives on the town payroll as a place municipalities could improve.

“Cheektowaga was the only one that even asked that question. ... We think that’s important for conflict of interest information,” he said.

Supervisor Diane Benczkowski said she was happy to see the town ranked as a disclosure-form leader and pointed to improvements made to the website in light of the coalition’s previous report on municipalities’ website accessibility.

“It’s easier for people to file a [Freedom of Information Law request],” she said. It’s right on our homepage now. ... That was one of the big deficiencies we had, so we fixed that, and we also fixed how people can contact department heads and elected officials easier on our website.”

However, she said the town previously received opinions regarding posting disclosure forms online, one of the coalition’s recommendations, which stated that was not required or necessary. There is a procedure in town code, which is posted online, that guides how residents can view the forms. That guidance states that individuals must request to review disclosure filings by providing the town’s Board of Ethics with their name, address and telephone number. Following the request the ethics board would “then make an expurgated copy of such statements available to such individual for review at a location chosen by the Board of Ethics.” The statements cannot be retained or copied for further review.

According to the coalition’s report, Hamburg Supervisor James Shaw became the first elected official in Erie and Niagara counties to post his disclosure form online, and Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster has committed to doing so.

Other municipalities studied for the report were a mixed bag, with some receiving the same generally positive reviews as Cheektowaga, while others were excoriated.

Hamburg, Buffalo and Niagara

County addressed 11 of the items, and Niagara Falls addressed 10, with those four communities joining Cheektowaga and Eire County in scoring above 50 percent. However, Lancaster, four items; Tonawanda, three items; Amherst and Clarence, two items each, all failed to address even 25 percent of the criteria.

According to Wolf, the goal of the report was to help the public recognize elected officials’ potential conflicts of interest and to provide recommendations to municipalities about ways to strengthen their disclosure processes. He said the group recently assessed local governments’ websites and as a result of the findings, many have made updates.

“We hope that people read [the report], learn from it,” he said. “I attached all the disclosure forms used by the 10 local governments we looked at, so people can see how other people are doing it, so we hope it’s educational.”

The Williamsville-based Buffalo Niagara Coalition for Open Government supports and advocates for open, transparent government. According to the group’s website, it is composed of “journalists, activists, attorneys, educators, news media organizations and other concerned citizens who value open government and freedom of information.” The Bee is not affiliated with the coalition.

Other recommendations the group called for in the report included requiring information regarding spouses and other relatives and requiring that elected officials who own a business disclose their largest customers.

To view the full report, “Improving Ethical & Financial Disclosure for Local Government Elected Officials,” visit the Buffalo Niagara Coalition for Open Government’s website at www.nyopengov.org.

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