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Public should know; Taxpayers have a right to information about county's deal with outside lawyers

There is a bottom line to the question about the lawyer fees Erie County is paying to the legal team helping to negotiate a new stadium lease with the Buffalo Bills, and it is obvious enough that County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz should be able to understand it: The county is spending taxpayers' dollars in a matter of taxpayer interest. The fees are public information.

The law firm, Nixon Peabody, considers those rates as trade secrets, but that doesn't fly. Anybody who wants legal representation knows the rate he will be paying. It's not a secret.

And even if it were, the public's right to know how its money is being spent trumps the right of vendors to keep their fees secret from the people who are paying the bill.

Erie County doesn't see it that way. The Poloncarz administration has withheld that information at the request of the law firm. That's a violation of the Freedom of Information law, believes Robert Freeman, executive director of the state's Committee on Open Government. "I think that the denial is unjustifiable," he told The Buffalo News. He's the man who would know.

Indefensible secrecy isn't the only problem with this matter. Also troubling is the unexplained need for the county to hire a team of nine lawyers from Nixon Peabody — one from its local office, three from Rochester and five from New York City.

We liked the idea that Poloncarz was going to hire experts to negotiate the Bills' new lease. It is very big business, after all, and one that is specialized enough to warrant the expense of hiring the right people to help. But it's got to be the right number of the right people, and nine seems like a lot.

Maybe Poloncarz can offer a plausible explanation for that. The Bills organization certainly has imposing legal talent representing its interests. We'd like to hear the reason. But what he can't defend is the secrecy surrounding the costs of the lawyers the county has hired.

While the law does allow government to keep secret information that "if disclosed would cause substantial injury to the competitive position" of the company providing it, there is no indication that is the case here. We're not talking about the recipe for Coca-Cola or the ingredients of McDonald's secret sauce. It's more akin to how much a can of Coke or a Big Mac will set you back.

It is always surprising how politicians like to keep secrets from the people who elected them. Some things, government really does have to keep private, of course — legal negotiations, personnel matters and so on — but the cost of the outside help it hires is plainly not among those things.

Poloncarz and the brass at Nixon Peabody need to reconcile themselves to that fact and get right with the taxpayers. The law firm is going to make a lot of money at their expense, and part of that deal is that county residents get to know how much.