A non-profit group formed to advocate for greater openness in local government believes officials in Niagara and Erie counties should be more transparent when it comes to disclosing their private business interests and those of their relatives.
Representatives from the Buffalo Niagara Coalition for Open Government, Inc. released a report on Tuesday in which they offered their critique of the public disclosure practices of 10 municipal governments, including the City of Niagara Falls and Niagara County.
The report offered a ranking from best to worst of the quality of disclosure statements required by each government based on a set of 16 items coalition members believe should be included on such forms.
Under the ranking, Niagara County government scored a 69 percent for the quality of its disclosure forms, with the coalition finding 11 of its 16 disclosure items being met. On the list, Niagara County received the same percentage score as the City of Buffalo and Town of Hamburg. Cheektowaga and Erie County ranked higher with a score of 75 percent. The City of Niagara received a score of 62.5 percent, with the coalition finding 10 of the 16 items on its list were addressed on the city's disclosure form.
Coalition members note that state law currently requires elected officials representing communities with populations greater than 50,000 to file annual disclosure statements. The group's report argues that such disclosures should not only include information about large business customers and large campaign contributors but also more detailed data on their spouses, adult children and other relatives.
In their report, coalition members argue that financial disclosures provide "accountability" while encouraging "open and honest government" that allows the public and media to better understand potential conflicts of interest.
"Knowing what businesses are owned by a registered domestic partner, children, grandchildren, parents, sisters, brothers, and grandparents; the parents, children, sisters, and brothers of your spouse or registered domestic partner; the spouses or registered domestic partners of your parents, children, brothers and sisters is important information," the report notes. "Whether these individuals are on the municipal payroll is important information for conflicts of interest and nepotism concerns as well. Of the ten municipalities reviewed, Cheektowaga is the only one that requires the disclosure of relatives working on the town payroll."
The report takes issue with the handling of disclosure reports for legislators in Niagara County, noting that while the county legislature approved a resolution in 1996 requiring lawmakers to file annual disclosure reports, the documents are not open for review by the public or the press. Under current county rules, disclosure forms are deemed "confidential" and can only be viewed by the sheriff, ethics board and district attorney.
"Every other local government reviewed in Erie and Niagara County allows citizens to file a FOIL to view disclosure forms," the coalition noted in its report. "What is the point of having disclosure forms if no one can see them? Several NY appellate court decisions have ruled that financial disclosure forms completed by government officials are a public record. Niagara Counties local law should be changed."
Although current New York law limits disclosure requirements to elected officials representing municipalities with populations of 50,000 or more, coalition members argue that all elected officials and individuals holding policy making positions should be required to fill out financial disclosure forms on an annual basis.
Members noted that in Erie County only six out of the 44 village, town, city and county governments meets the population threshold, while in Niagara County, only the county itself has a population in excess of 50,000.
"Governor Andrew Cuomo in 2016 proposed that all local governments regardless of population size be required to complete financial disclosure forms," the report notes. "The governor’s proposal did not become law. All local governments regardless of population size should voluntarily adopt the practice of completing financial disclosure forms as a way to promote ethics and transparency."