Maria C. Lehman has a lot to learn about managing an important and sensitive public project. Unless she shows that she can learn those skills – and quickly – her continued employment should take the shape of a question mark.
Lehman is the state’s program manager for Peace Bridge projects at Empire State Development Corp. In that capacity, she has a duty to the public that she serves and that pays her salary. Instead, she is purposely deceiving them.
In an April meeting of the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority board, this is what Lehman had to say about making Fourth Street a one-way thoroughfare:
“We were very quiet about it, and didn’t make a lot of noise, and made it as a part of a lot of transactions, and the opposition wasn’t aware that that even happened when it happened.”
Nice. Very sneaky. The problem is that it is her job to inform, not to deceive the public. It turned out that some of her boasting was incorrect, but that’s not the point. Honest, professional leadership is the point.
Another example: At the same meeting, she also talked about the project to connect the U.S. bridge plaza to the northbound Niagara Thruway lanes and to remove Baird Drive from Front Park. The plan, she said, was not to publicize the work until after the deadline had passed for legal objections to be filed.
Again, very clever. And duplicitous.
It’s easy to understand the impetus. Buffalo has long been a hotbed of opposition to – well, just about everything – and the state, under the leadership of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, wants to see progress at the Peace Bridge. So do we. The goal is correct; it’s important to complete this project.
But it’s also important to do it right. It’s important to ensure than people who are affected by it are kept in the loop, not deliberately excluded.
Yes, that can make progress difficult. Different people have different ideas of what is best and the purpose of public participation is to grope, hopefully in some deliberate way, toward a broadly acceptable decision. It can be intensely frustrating. But here’s the thing: Nobody ever said democracy was efficient.
If we want efficiency – that is, to make the trains run on time – we know there are better ways to accomplish that than the messy ways of democracy. But Americans decided a long time ago that they preferred the cacophony of democratic process to the silent and slippery systems of autocrats.
It is especially startling that Lehman made these comments in a public meeting that, although little noticed, is routinely recorded. The recording was obtained by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and made available to The Buffalo News. Thus, not only is she playing fast and loose with established processes on an important project, but she was reckless in discussing it – practically bragging about it in a forum where her comments were entirely likely to be discovered.
As a consequence of the release of Lehman’s comments and others made at the April 25 meeting, the project could be obstructed.
The group that secured the video has asked the White House Council on Environmental Quality to rescind environmental approval of the project and halt further construction pending an investigation. And a neighborhood organization, the Columbus Park Association. has filed ethics complaints against Lehman with professional engineering organizations.
The lesson is that if abiding by the rules can hinder projects, so can trying to fudge them. This was a bad moment.