A fresh group of leaders is questioning old practices in towns, villages and cities throughout Erie County, and what they're finding is downright scary. The latest barrage came from Orchard Park's new supervisor, Mary Travers Murphy. She wanted to know why an old-boys network still uses a committee of local brokers to decide where the town buys insurance. She properly went after an archaic practice that has absolutely no place in modern governance.
Travers Murphy, who while at WKBW-TV often exposed shady dealings, estimated the town may be overspending $125,000 a year on liability insurance for which it pays $505,360. That amounts to a 25 percent premium citizens pay so local insurance companies and their brokers can feed at the public trough. Town taxpayers should offer outraged support to Travers Murphy, who said that frozen-out competitors who are town residents brought the situation to her attention.
Using an Insurance Committee is legal, though Travers Murphy noted Wednesday night that Orchard Park is the only town around still using one. The committee awards the town's insurance business, so for decades the insurance went to a member's agency. It may be legal, but it's still a taxpayer rip-off and a Town Board dispensing favors. County Executive Joel A. Giambra's furniture sales to a friend are examples of bad government, but he at least put the furniture deals out to bid.
The six-member committee and its Town Board supporters approve of this conflict of interest. Members decide, and then collect commissions, typically between $3,500 and $5,300 a year each, and $170,000 in all between 1995 and 2005.
One committee member defended the practice, saying there is much work in handling a complex account. Fine, then bid out the work and make sure the low bidder can handle the job. Don't divvy it up among yourselves in a back room somewhere. One committee member even had the gall to suggest possible unethical behavior by Travers Murphy in sharing insurance information with a would-be competitor. The town's insurance policy is public information -- and now it's a public scandal.
Travers Murphy is right to fight to change how insurance in Orchard Park is brokered. The resistance she faces -- Town Board members reaffirmed the practice Wednesday night over her vote -- shows the prevailing thinking in too many towns that they are personal fiefdoms. A new system is needed that offers the town comparison shopping and taxpayer savings.