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Editorial: Frequent absence of board members reflects poorly on Erie Canal agency

It may sound like inside baseball, but this game involves public money and public concerns, so the public has an interest in what goes on at the “ballpark.”

This issue involves the attendance, or lack of it, by members of the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. board of directors. Some of the seven volunteer members have been noticeably absent over the past couple of years.

While the missing members all had reasons for not being able to make it to most or even some meetings – in one case, any of the meetings – much still got accomplished. A quick glance out of downtown office windows overlooking Canalside can attest to that fact.

However, the empty seats at the very least look bad. And they offer support to the argument of critics who say that decisions being made on the future of the Inner and Outer Harbors involve only a few people. Assemblyman Sean Ryan, D-Buffalo, called it a “phantom board.”

It is important to note that the board has never had a problem in getting a quorum. Sam Hoyt, a board member and former interim chairman, said he could remember only one time in the past five years when a meeting was canceled because of lack of attendance.

Moreover, four members – Robert Gioia, Hoyt, David Colligan (who recently resigned) and Michael di Virgilio – rarely missed monthly board meetings, according to a review by News staff reporter Mark Sommer. They also did most of the talking.

This is where appearances come in. Even though absent board members have pitched in, according to Hoyt and Gioia, it looks bad when they are not around for meetings.

John Maggiore was appointed to the board March 25. He submitted his resignation Dec. 6 after never attending a single meeting. The Buffalo native works in Albany for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who appoints the board members. Maggiore replaced Gary Ginsberg, another Buffalo native. Ginsberg is a Time Warner executive now living in New York City. He missed seven of his last 12 meetings, and when he did attend it was always by teleconference.

Then there was Makau Mutua, who during a 28-month period from September 2014 to January 2017 missed meetings for 19 straight months. Julie Bargnesi, a local lawyer, missed slightly more than half the meetings during the same time period.

Both had reasons. Mutua, a University at Buffalo law professor, said his absence was due to the fact that he was on a one-year sabbatical in Italy.

Of the seven voting members – Mayor Byron W. Brown and County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz are the board’s two nonvoting members – the four members with high attendance are actively engaged. The items being considered are voted on in public; the public is allowed to ask questions and make comments.

It may be that the members unable to make the meetings are contributing greatly behind the scenes. Still, attendance at meetings should be considered an integral part of the appointment. We recognize that it’s a volunteer post and that civic leaders are busy, but if they can’t be full participants in the work, the governor should find people who will be.

The Erie Canal Harbor board of directors has accomplished much and has much left to do on the waterfront. Having seven fully engaged members should help the process.

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