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Official’s take on Peace Bridge prompts ethics complaints

When a top state engineer briefed Peace Bridge officials about planned Niagara Thruway connections to the bridge plaza, she talked about how project opponents in and out of City Hall were kept in the dark on some issues.

Consider what Maria C. Lehman said in April about making Fourth Street one-way:

“We were very quiet about it, and didn’t make a lot of noise, and made it as a part of a lot of transactions, and the opposition wasn’t aware that that even happened when it happened,” Lehman said at the April 25 meeting of the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority board.

Lehman is the New York State program manager for Peace Bridge projects at Empire State Development Corp., the state’s economic development agency. She is not employed by the bridge authority, nor is she the project manager for any bridge authority projects.

At the board meeting, Lehman also talked about not publicizing the project – the plan calls for connecting the U.S. bridge plaza to the northbound Niagara Thruway lanes and removing Baird Drive from Front Park – until after legal objections could be filed.

Lehman’s comments about the state’s Gateway Connections Improvement Project infuriated those who live near the bridge. Tuesday, they filed ethics complaints against Lehman with professional engineering organizations.

Civil engineers “have a tremendous responsibility to the built environment and public safety,” said Kathleen R. Mecca, president of the Columbus Park Association. “Is this how they should conduct themselves?”

Some of Lehman’s comments also turned out to be wrong.

An item before the Common Council permitting Fourth Street between Porter Avenue and Jersey Street to become one-way was not bundled with other items, as Lehman said.

Lehman also told bridge authority members about working closely with some city lawmakers to get changes to Fourth Street approved and said she expected their cooperation on future approvals.

But the Council never approved making Fourth Street one-way, because apparently the law does not require it. Instead, on March 18, lawmakers acknowledged the item by “receiving and filing” it, which means they were notified of the change but were not required to approve or deny it.

Since Lehman’s comments became public Aug. 7, Council President Darius G. Pridgen said he has learned of “a huge gray area” about what kind of approval is needed to make streets one-way, though traditionally the Council has not had a say in those changes.

Pridgen said he hopes to have a more definitive procedure surrounding street changes when the Council reconvenes in September.

He said he does not understand why Lehman would talk about getting cooperation from the Council on something it never had a vote on in the first place.

“I really think that she was trying to impress people in the room,” he said. “Fortunately, it backfired.”

When asked about the ethics complaints against Lehman, the state Department of Transportation issued a brief statement Tuesday. “All state and federal guidelines regarding public input on this project were followed,” spokeswoman Jennifer Post said.

The only physical work done on the project before the federal environmental approval was preliminary design work, which is allowable under the law and was precleared by federal authorities, Post said.

The bridge authority’s public meeting April 25, during which Lehman and Chairman Sam Hoyt spoke of efforts to successfully beat back opposition on the project, was recorded as a matter of course by the authority and released to an environmental group through a Freedom of Information request.

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility released the recordings to The Buffalo News in early August. Hoyt and Lehman’s comments upset the Council, community members and Canadian members of the bridge authority. Lehman also talked about avoiding a Council real estate subcommittee, since North Council Member Joseph Golombek Jr., a Peace Bridge project opponent, oversees that panel.

But the Council doesn’t have a real estate subcommittee.

Golombek said Tuesday that if such a subcommittee meets in City Hall, he’s not aware of it and doesn’t oversee it. He said he also intends to vote against any Peace Bridge-related item, unless someone can persuade him to do otherwise.

As for how the Council’s leaders will handle future bridge matters, Pridgen said he will make sure that all items having to do with the bridge or state DOT go through the Council’s committee process. None will be rushed through to a vote, he said. That contrasts with what happened July 29, when the Council voted, 8-1, to approve a land transaction allowing the Gateway Connections project to move forward during a hastily called special session.

The Columbus Park Association, a group of neighbors concerned about truck traffic at the bridge and high rates of asthma and other respiratory diseases, filed ethics complaints about Lehman to three professional organizations, stating that Lehman’s comments violated professional engineering ethics.

Lehman’s statements indicate she was trying to stifle public awareness of the project, Mecca said. Her statements also reveal the project’s design was underway before the required environmental review was completed, a violation of federal law, according to the block club.

The state DOT disagrees.

The block club, in its complaints to the National Society of Professional Engineers, the American Society of Civil Engineers and the New York State Office of the Professions, contends that Lehman violated ethics that require engineers to “hold paramount the safety health and welfare of the public,” “issue public statements in only an objective and truthful manner,” “avoid deceptive acts” and “conduct themselves honorably, responsibly, ethically, and lawfully, so as to enhance the honor, reputation and usefulness of the profession.”