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TOWN BOARD FAULTED FOR HIDING NAMES OF EMPLOYEES

Amherst's ban on naming town employees in public meeting agendas violates state law and is improper, according to Robert J. Freeman, executive director of the state Committee on Open Government.

Town Board members unanimously passed the name ban last month in an effort to prevent "embarrassing" town employees, according to Council Member Jane S. Woodward, who sponsored the measure.

As a result, during a meeting Monday night, the board approved nearly $700 in travel expenses for three town employees identified only as "x. xxxxxx, x. xxxxxxx and x. xxxxxx."

When asked about the editing out of the names, Town Clerk Susan J. Jaros said, "I'm just following the rules." Jaros cited the Town Board's new law withholding names and other information about employees from resolutions and other Town Board agenda items.

Woodward said she did not intend to infringe on the public's right to know, but she was prompted by seeing several agenda items published for Town Board meetings that "mentioned the names of employees in negative ways."

However, the ban also covers employees who receive honors, according to a spokesman for Jaros. And, following board meetings, town clerks have been reinserting employees' names on the agenda -- even though Woodward's resolution does not call for that.

But Tuesday, Freeman called the town's ban "inconsistent with the law and unjustifiable."

"The public has the right to know how public money is being spent," he said, adding: "Embarrassment is not one of the grounds for denial of access to records" under the state's Freedom of Information statute.

Freeman said courts repeatedly have found that the public has a right to information that is relevant to the official duties of public employees.

For example, he said, the public may see travel records submitted by public employees in connection with their duties, but information such as Social Security numbers may be withheld from the documents.

According to Town Attorney E. Thomas Jones, the ban was not intended to hamper the public's right to information.

"I don't think there's any intent to keep the public in the dark. I think there was an attempt to protect employees," he said.

The Buffalo News filed a Freedom of Information request seeking the travel records of the three employees.

e-mail: tdolan@buffnews.com

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