About 50 people showed up at the first “Government 2.0” class held at Lockport City Hall on Monday to voice their opinions on what’s not fair in the county.
While most of the discussion involved county issues, only four legislators were in attendance. That was duly noted by citizens who had a gripe.
“Where is government?” asked Lockport resident Felix Kutrybala.
Tom Christy, the founder of Fiscal Accountability, Integrity and Responsibility (FAIR) and host of LCTV’s Legislative Journal, introduced the program. Professional human resources consultant Skip Helfrich of Lockport was the facilitator.
Citizens were not bashful. They wanted to know why Niagara County is the highest taxed county in the country. They wanted to know why taxpayers find out about policies only after they are adopted. They wanted transparent government and to bring in the county manager to make him accountable. They want to voice their opinions at the beginning of legislative meetings, before the vote is taken, not at the end.
Legislator Dennis Virtuoso (D) defended the current public speaking policy and argued that three minutes is a reasonable amount of time. He noted that citizens have not been cut off.
The Niagara Falls legislator wants dialog, without interruption, not debates. He also feels that the public should not have to wait until the end of the meeting to speak.
It wasn’t all about public speaking. Ken Hamilton of Niagara Falls called for consolidation of county governments. That is, one government for 220,000 people.
Margie Swan, who called for cutting the Legislature from 19 to 9 members, just wants to see an improvement.
“We want them to give us good government,” she said. “I’ve never seen it as bad as it is now ... We can’t sit and question anything. We should have public input.”
A frustration that Scott Leffler of radio station WLVL pointed out.
“Fifteen legislators are not here,” he said. “Where are the legislators? They don’t listen to us.”
There were candidates. North Tonawanda’s Scott Schultz, running in the 11th district, agreed the public should speak first.
“So much is behind closed doors,” he said. “Put the budget online for 10,000 auditors.”
Criticism of the Industrial Development Agency was not far from the surface of the discussion, but not the focus. Candidate Merrill Bender, running in the 18th district, wants IDA reform. “Don’t give away the store,” he said. “Don’t pay out $50,000 for a job.”
Legislator Harry Apolito of Lockport acknowledged the frustration of the legislators and the public. He said the Mount View and AES decisions were terrible.
Despite the turnout, organizers were happy with Monday’s opening discussion.
“I thought it went great,” Helfrich said. “We got people to talk and begin to hear each other. This could be the watershed night that takes us to the next step.”
Both Helfrich and Christy said they want to hold another meeting within a month, but noted that it might be difficult to bring people together during the summer.