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Stonewalling by suburbs harms region

The contrast couldn't be more striking -- or the socioeconomic implications more clear.

In Buffalo, the mayor, police commissioner and school superintendent hold a news conference to announce an effort to address problems in city schools. They forthrightly reassure the public they're dealing with the issues rather than sweeping them under the rug.

In Eden, it's the exact opposite.

A cheerleading junket to Disney World that allegedly turned into a shoplifting spree has school officials closemouthed and closing ranks. It's as if they think not talking publicly about the charges will make the whole thing go away -- and preserve the idyllic image Buffalo's suburbs like to project.

Given such reactions, it's little wonder everyone has a story about the Western New Yorker who brags about never coming into Buffalo, or that some people look at the city's border and see a giant chalk outline.

When the warts of the city are out there for all to see while suburbs hide their dirty linen behind veils of "no comment," it feeds the stereotypes that grip the region. And those stereotypes have tangible consequences.

The problem was never more clear than this week.

Faced with a rash of fights that sully the image of city schools, Mayor Byron W. Brown culminated a months-long review by announcing a new Police Department position that will "focus specifically on school safety and security."

Faced with sticky-fingered students carrying the Western New York banner to Orlando, Fla., Eden officials hid behind "confidentiality" and said they "don't have any comment."

If not for an enterprising Buffalo News reporter, it would be as if the whole embarrassing episode never happened. And if it never happened, you don't have to worry about leaving your garage or your car unlocked in Eden -- like you would in the city.

At least that's the perception.

And you can make a good argument that such perceptions -- not just hard data -- are part of the reason insurance rates in city neighborhoods are higher than in the suburbs, why mortgage redlining continues and why it's harder for small-business owners to get financing to open stores in the city or attract customers once they do.

In fact, city residents have long had their suspicions about how suburban officials keep a lid on anything negative. It's not uncommon to hear Buffalonians at a public forum ask, "We know stuff happens in the suburbs; how come the media don't report it?"

This week's events provide one answer: Suburban officials are better at hiding bad news.

There's also another issue: What kind of message does obfuscation and stonewalling send to impressionable youngsters who already have the wrong impression about how one goes about acquiring merchandise?

Not long ago, Buffalo School Superintendent James A. Williams said adults have to model proper behavior for youngsters. When it comes to candor and accountability, Eden officials make lousy role models.

No one is equating shoplifting with beating up students or teachers. And -- who knows? -- maybe the Eden girls will be found innocent.

But the larger issue is the reaction of that district's leaders, who even dismissed the state's open-government guru when he said they should be open with the public.

When it comes to bad news in the suburbs, the philosophy seems to be that no news is good news.

That may serve their narrow ends. But if we're going to achieve real regionalism, we can't perpetuate the fiction that one part of the region has all of the problems and the rest don't have any.

e-mail: rwatson@buffnews.com

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