A ruling last week by a state supreme court justice in Niagara County opened the door for greater transparency where the public availability of county lawmakers' financial disclosure reports is concerned and that is good news.
Residents in Niagara County have the New York Coalition for Open Government to thank, as the grassroots group of good government advocates was responsible for initiating the court action that led to the judge's decision.
County lawmakers are required to file financial disclosure statements on an annual basis. Under the county’s ethics rules, which date back to 1996, copies of the disclosures were not made available to the public. The rules allowed the statements to be viewed only by local law enforcement and other officials who may be involved in reviewing a complaint related to an alleged ethics violation.
In 2019, under pressure from members of the open government coalition, the county legislature amended the local law, making disclosure forms filed in 2019 and after subject to state Freedom of Information Law. All statements filed prior to 2019 were not covered under the amendment and therefore remained off limits to the public.
In February, with help from UB’s Civil Rights and Transparency Clinic, the coalition filed a lawsuit that sought to overturn the county law and force the release of disclosure documents filed between 2013 and 2019.
Following oral arguments on Thursday, state Supreme Court Justice Frank Caruso denied a request for dismissal of the lawsuit and ordered the county to provide the coalition with copies of the financial disclosure forms. The judge, siding with the coalition and its attorney from UB, determined that the local law barring public release of the disclosure forms was illegal and in violation of New York’s Freedom of Information Law.
Coalition President Paul Wolf noted that Niagara County was the only county in New York with a law on the books that prevented the public from viewing the contents of lawmakers’ financial disclosure documents.
This is important because knowing what investments or holdings a public official may have allows for greater transparency and oversight where their dealings with public resources are concerned. The statements may help to identify any potential conflicts of interests with county contracts or other dealings.
In New York, similar financial disclosure statements are filed and made public by top officials including the governor and members of the state legislature, for this very reason. Similar standards have for years applied in counties across New York as well.
That's why it is so puzzling to find the county's legal team attempted to argue that lawmakers filed their reports between 2013 and 2019 with an expectation of privacy when the standard for making such documents public had already been established.
“This never should have required a lawsuit but Niagara County officials stubbornly refused to correct their mistake,” Wolf said.
As was noted by Michael F. Higgins, the attorney from UB's Civil Rights and Transparency Clinic who helped the coalition argue its position, the judge's decision provides the public and the press with a greater ability to serve as watchdogs on local government and to protect the public's interest.
"We look forward to reviewing the documents that were withheld for far too long," Higgins said.
Thanks to the coalition and UB's Civil Rights and Transparency Clinic, any member of the local press or any resident of Niagara County will now be able to do the same.