>Government owes it to the public to be open
The News Parade Section of Feb. 26 included a discussion relative to governmental handling of information. The point of the article was to highlight questions of whether we as citizens are being fully informed. Section 84 of state Public Officers Law addresses the matter. "The more open a government is with its citizenry, the greater the understanding and participation of the public in government."
In spite of the foregoing, our Niagara County Legislature has found subtle ways to control information, even while providing apparent open meetings.
To enhance the public's participation in government, I believe we need to be able to ask questions, and receive answers, in public. There is a minimal three-minute per individual provision for public comment at Legislature meetings. As to questions, however, County Legislature Chairman [William] Ross has made his view quite clear, by pronouncing, "We don't answer questions here." We are directed to put questions to our individual legislator. The problem is, of any reply, that information is not in public view.
It is a habit at Legislature meetings to interrupt at a given point and call for committee meetings and political caucuses off the floor, thus out of public and TV camera view. If there are decisions of the moment to be made, let them be discussed in public. Political caucuses should have no place in the middle of a public meeting anyhow. Legislators should leave political considerations outside, as they are there supposedly to represent all the people.
What passes for a meeting agenda is available to the public. This, however, is only a list of proposed and previously passed resolutions. A true agenda should list every activity planned for the meeting.
As to previously passed resolutions, this pertains to a system that allows for resolutions to be submitted for vote after a submission cutoff date. The problem here is while the full text of timely resolutions is available to the public, late resolutions are not, unless one makes it a point to find them. It is a way to put things through that legislators would rather not attract too much attention.
An example of where public accounting is needed is in expenditure of tobacco funds. In an overall list of 58 items, there are three entries, over three years, for Niagara County Community College miscellaneous equipment, totaling $575,530. A single item of Technology Equipment: $1 million. For such amounts of money, shouldn't there be a better accounting than that? Ask your legislator for the list.
All current county financial documents, budgets, audits, financial reports of any sort should be prominently available at the legislature and the three primary libraries.
There is also the matter of Industrial Development Agency meetings. While open to the public, scheduling at 3 p.m. on a Thursday limits public attendance. Here there is no provision for public comment. This separate body, with tax modification authority over the county, towns, cities, and school boards, is also in need of public participation.
Secretiveness keeps the people out. If we attend public meetings we should come away with the feeling that we had learned something of our government.