As far as the state’s expert on open meetings is concerned, Assemblyman Michael P. Kearns is on to something by demanding public access to the inner workings of a high-level group exploring a new stadium for the Buffalo Bills.
“Clearly the Open Meetings Law would apply to the board ... and its records are subject to the Freedom of Information Law,” said Robert J. Freeman, the veteran director of the state Committee on Open Government. “Wouldn’t it be better to let the public in so it can be reported objectively on what is said and heard?”
Restrictions are bound to guide access to a host of deliberations by the New Stadium Working Group and its umbrella agency, the Erie County Stadium Corp., Freeman said. But enough public characteristics guide at least the stadium corporation stemming from the Bills’ new 10-year lease on Ralph Wilson Stadium, he said, that access to that group should be granted in many instances.
Freeman also said the records of anything kept or prepared by the stadium corporation, a public benefit corporation – except for those records exempted under the law – would be considered public.
Kearns, who on Monday sent a letter to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo seeking public access to the groups’ meeting, is now taking his efforts a step further. He said Tuesday he will introduce legislation to require the Erie County Stadium Corp. and the New Stadium Working Group to conduct its meetings in public.
The Buffalo Democrat continued his push for open meetings of the New Stadium Working Group by noting that the Erie County Stadium Corp. was constituted as a public benefit corporation as a subsidiary to the Empire State Development Corp. He also believes it should be subject to many aspects of the Open Meetings and Freedom of Information laws.
“In the end, we can get this stuff,” he said of the public proceedings of the group. “So why not just let us be part of the process?”
Deputy County Executive Richard M. Tobe, who served as the county’s point man in the negotiations that produced the new lease, said the county agrees on access to board meetings – to a point.
“They should be and are open,” he said, adding that several meetings of the board have already taken place.
Tobe cautioned that the directors retain the right to adjourn to executive session, and that other caveats regarding access to meetings and documents should also apply. But he emphasized the county considers the working group to be a nonpublic advisory panel that is not governed by Open Meetings or Freedom of Information laws, and that “very, very powerful reasons” guide that thinking.
“We’ll be dealing with potential sites for a stadium, and don’t want to forecast that because it could lead to land speculation and possibly hike prices,” he said.
Tobe said the county appointees to the board of the Erie County Stadium Corp. include himself and former County Executive Dennis T. Gorski. A spokeswoman for the Empire State Development Corp. in Buffalo was unavailable Tuesday to discuss state appointees, but Tobe said Empire State Development President Kenneth Adams serves as chairman of the local corporation.
Kearns acknowledges the working group meetings may technically be conducted behind closed doors. But he argues that the public should have access because $95 million in state and county funds are already committed to improving the team’s current home in Orchard Park.
His new legislation aims to assure that all such panels dealing with public policy – including the New Stadium Working Group – abide by the Open Meetings and Freedom of Information laws. He said executive session provisions may apply where necessary.
“I understand there could be sensitive information,” he said. “However, this is a public-private partnership. The point of this legislation is to correct this, and not only in this instance, but to prevent others from getting around these secretive discussions.”
Kearns said he is confident that he will obtain a Senate sponsor for his planned legislation.
Cuomo spokesman Richard Azzopardi said Monday that the governor has not yet received Kearns’ request, but will review it when it arrives.