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DISINFORMATION IN AMHERST

The fact that the health center in Amherst's Pepsi Center got a new operator Tuesday may or may not mean the troubled facility will now operate as it should.

However, there is no question that town government did not operate as it should have when it came to keeping the public accurately informed about what was happening at the beleaguered facility.

It took the filing of a Freedom of Information Act by Buffalo News reporters just for the public to learn that former operator Todd Champlin hadn't paid the rent for the past eight months.

When asked about the health center previously, Supervisor Susan Grelick and others said it was doing extremely well. The public now knows that was never true and Amherst residents should be wondering just what kind of information they're getting from town officials.

Grelick says she meant only that the center was doing well in terms of memberships, which officials say more than doubled in recent months. But that kind of hypertechnical hair-splitting, even if it seems accurate in the minds of public officials, is not what citizens have a right to expect.

Such Clintonesque distinctions, particularly on a project that already has aroused public concern, does not enhance town government's credibility. Even with concerns that talking too much about past problems might not be a good negotiating strategy when soliciting new operators, officials could have taken a tack that walked a middle ground and didn't mislead, especially on a project like this.

It would be easy to call the Pepsi Center "long troubled," except that it hasn't been around long enough to qualify. Yet the town already has had to refinance the year-old project and get help from the Buffalo Athletic Club to get the health facility running right.

It's hardly what you'd call an auspicious beginning. Critics say the problems go all the way back to the way the facility was financed in the first place, a complicated arrangement the State Legislature later outlawed.

Against that type of backdrop, complete candor is more essential than ever in keeping the public informed and confident in how the town is dealing with the problems. Soliciting a new operator may clear up some of the financial problems, but it won't eliminate the confidence deficit that mounts when town officials are less than up-front with the public.

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