State Sen. George D. Maziarz ramped up his campaign Friday against the "secrecy" surrounding the Niagara Falls Bridge Commission by bringing B. Thomas Golisano into the fray.
Golisano said his Responsible New York organization will pay for a lawsuit against the binational entity to force it to disclose its finances and open its meetings to the media and the public.
"What are they trying to hide?" Golisano said at a news conference at Niagara Falls City Hall.
The eight-member board of bridge commissioners consists of four Americans, who are appointed by the governor of New York, and four Canadians, who are named by the premier of Ontario. The commission owns and operates the three international crossings in Niagara County -- the Lewiston-Queenston, Rainbow and Whirlpool Rapids bridges. The Peace Bridge Authority is a separate entity.
"The bridge commission operates in almost total secrecy," Maziarz said. "Their meetings are closed to both the public and the press."
Maziarz, R-Newfane, and Golisano, the billionaire owner of the Buffalo Sabres, said they were "teaming up to take on the bridge commission" to compel it to be more transparent in its operations and accountable to the public.
Also joining the fight were Niagara County Legislator Renae Kimble, of Niagara Falls, and several county and city lawmakers. Both the County Legislature and Niagara Falls City Council passed unanimous resolutions calling for public disclosure by the bridge commission.
It is expected the lawsuit will be filed within two weeks, but the bridge commission is not overly concerned.
"The lawsuit is without merit," said Adam W. Perry, of the law firm Hodgson Russ, who represents the commission. "The commission complies with all of its legal obligations, and we believe the courts will find in favor of the commission."
The state comptroller audited the commission in 1995, "which clearly shows," Maziarz noted, "they accept the need for public accountability."
Indeed, they do, Perry added. The commission is audited annually by outside accountancy firms, including last year, and the basic numbers, such as expenditures and administrative costs, are available on the commission's Web site: www.niagarafallsbridges.com.
Salaries and other personal information are not available, however, which is what got Maziarz involved in the bridge issue last year, after the sudden departure of longtime General Manager Thomas Garlock.
Maziarz wanted to know the details of Garlock's severance package, rumored to be worth "hundreds of thousands of dollars," Maziarz said at the time.
"Where's the money coming from?" Maziarz added. "Who's paying for this?"
The Niagara Falls Bridge Commission, which was formed in 1938, is self-supporting through tolls and tenant leases, and no U.S. taxes fund the operation, Perry said.
Norma Higgs, the recently elected American chairwoman of the commission, said in a written statement, "The Niagara Falls Bridge Commission is in full compliance with the laws that apply to the binational corporation. We are not an agency of the State of New York, and the commission provides all information to the public it is required to disclose."
Perry said it would not be fair to compare the Niagara Falls Bridge Commission to other border crossing entities -- such as the Peace Bridge Authority.
"Each bridge entity is unique in its governing laws," he said. "They were established at different times by different governments. There's not a single model that governs the many crossings along the 3,000-mile border between the U.S. and Canada."
Maziarz dismisses such statements as generalities and is sticking to his guns to elicit full disclosure from the Niagara Falls Bridge Commission.
The board refused to respond to a Freedom of Information Act request filed last year by The Buffalo News pertaining to the Garlock ouster, maintaining that it -- the board collectively, Canadians and Americans -- is bound by the laws of Ontario, where the U.S. act has no jurisdiction.
Garlock, an American who lives in Lockport, has also been silent ever since.
Maziarz took the matter to Gov. David A. Paterson, who said his office would look into the matter.
"The governor agreed with me that commissioners who use public funds should be transparent and that the information should be disclosed," Maziarz said.
L.J. "Lew" Holloway, a former town administrator in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., last month was appointed general manager to replace Garlock.
Commissioners declined to say what Holloway's salary would be, citing the same privacy issues that Maziarz has encountered.