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Retreat creates questions on ethics Value tops gift limit for county officials

Ethical issues will keep some Erie County control board members from attending Joel A. Giambra's free two-day retreat next month for the government's budget-making elite.

And county legislators, who also are invited, have rules on the gifts they can accept.

Lawmakers would receive two days of meals and a night of lodging at hotelier Paul Snyder's Beaver Hollow Conference Center in Wyoming County. Giambra said that Snyder, an acquaintance, offered the facility at no cost. Giambra will pay for the meals out of his campaign accounts.

Participants must pay $35 if they do not want to share a room, Giambra said. Otherwise, they can eat and stay free at the center, where winter packages usually start at $165 a person and can run to $199, according to its Web site.

Is that a "gift?" And is it given to influence or reward lawmakers in the performance of their duties?

If so, lawmakers must report it on their annual financial disclosure forms.

Snyder has not had business before the Legislature in years. The county executive, of course, puts plenty of business before the Legislature. But Giambra describes this retreat, scheduled for March 23-24, as an attempt to unite the important players in the pursuit of financial stability.

He foresees nothing more than "bonding" and "quality time" devoted to discussing the county's four-year plan, a map to saving more than $100 million and avoiding more tax increases through 2009.

"The idea here was to get people away from their normal environments, with fax machines and cell phones and interruptions, to go over the four-year plan and potential problems with it, and to see where we need to be all together," Giambra said. "Last year, we went through tremendous turbulence, to be very kind."

The retreat's discussions involving government business will be open to the public and reporters, he said, but the public will not have access to gatherings over drinks and other socializing.

"One of the concerns I have is the appearance of impropriety," said Legislator Cynthia Locklear, D-West Seneca. "It's about a $200 per night value. And because Paul Snyder is such an active and involved businessman in Erie County, I want to be sensitive about that as being an area to avoid. Since we have a $75 limit on gratuities we can accept, I feel there might be a better place to hold it."

Legislator Michael H. Ranzenhofer, R-Amherst, said he doubts he will attend.

"My original thought was, if you want to get together, we can do that here," he said. "I don't know that we need to have a retreat. The meeting can be held just as well in a business setting."

Some members of the state-appointed Fiscal Stability Authority will not travel to Beaver Hollow.

"I signed a code of ethics form, just like all my colleagues," said Sheila K. Kee, an authority member and former county budget director. "I feel there are significant issues with taking a gift of any sort.

"In the same breath, I have to applaud that someone in county government is trying to get the team together. As an authority member, I feel very strongly that there are ethical issues. How do I do my job while being objective? It would be like a member of the Supreme Court going over and sitting with the House of Representatives."

"I understand what Joel Giambra is trying to do -- putting us all together," said Anthony J. Baynes, an Amherst businessman who serves on the control board. "But we have a crisis today, and we have to look at this quickly. Doing this at the end of March is two months too late.

"Legally, we can only accept $75 in gifts in a calendar year. The hotel alone is $199 plus tax and gratuities. The appearances don't look right. Just for that reason alone, I don't think we should be going."

Stanley J. Keysa, another control board member, has a different view.

"This is a valid way of team-building and [of] understanding and gaining a common objective," he said. Keysa said he probably will attend if the open meetings law requirements are met and the dates do not conflict with his schedule.

New county lawmakers initially raised the idea of a retreat with James M. Hartman, the former interim county comptroller whom Giambra appointed as his "director of management initiatives" -- his point man on the four-year plan.

The suggestion laid dormant for weeks, until Giambra sent an invitation last week to lawmakers and the fiscal stability authority.

County Attorney Laurence K. Rubin said he doesn't think the free accommodations constitute a gift, since lawmakers and authority members would attend as part of a job function.

"Based upon the limited facts I have, it appears that whatever benefit is being provided by Beaver Hollow is to the County of Erie and the Erie County Fiscal Stability Authority because this appears to be part of our official work," he said.

The fact the session must comply with the state's Open Meetings Law provides further evidence, Rubin said, that lawmakers and authority members are carrying out their jobs.

e-mail: mspina@buffnews.com

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