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Civic watchdogs push for open government

When Rosemary Warren started attending School Board meetings, the men on the board smoked through public discussions and most of them mumbled.

She remembers thick blue smoke in the school gym where young students would file in the next day.

“It was like being in a bowling alley,” said Warren, now 80 and still a regular who watches the Niagara Wheatfield meetings like a hawk.

Back then, Warren’s oldest son was just starting kindergarten, and Warren, a teacher, wanted to know what was going on in his school. School Board members didn’t make it easy.

“It took me six months to find out what they were actually talking about,” Warren recalled.

The smoke is gone. Her oldest is 51. Meeting agendas are posted online. But some things remain stubbornly the same.

There are some public officials who seem to have an aversion to filling in the public on what it has a right to know.

Take, for instance, the befuddling recording of an April Peace Bridge Authority meeting in which public officials casually chatted about ways to keep a project mum until after opponents could sue.

One state engineer detailed how officials quietly pushed through City Hall an item to make a stretch of Fourth Street one-way.

“The opposition wasn’t aware that that even happened when it happened,” said Maria C. Lehman, a state program manager for Peace Bridge projects at Empire State Development Corp.

Did they think drivers would never notice the one-way signs on the street?

Out in West Seneca, the town plans to keep a study secret despite having committed up to $30,000 in public money to pay for the work. The report analyzed a proposal by developer Scott Congel for the vacant Seneca Mall site, but the town doesn’t want you to know what it says.

The News sought the document through the state’s open records laws. So did a resident. But never you mind. Town officials are claiming an exemption from the law to keep it from public view now that Congel has changed his plan and has told the town he will reimburse it for the obsolete study.

In a mind-boggling response, a town attorney claims the report contains no “purely factual tabulations of statistics or data” since the information is based on consultant assumptions.

Warren, the Sanborn resident, has learned in her 46 years of watching government that navigating the state’s Freedom of Information law is sometimes the only way to find out exactly what public officials are doing.

“I think I try to keep them on the straight and narrow,” Warren said.

There are people like Rosemary Warren at board meetings throughout Western New York. But sadly, they’re few – leaving the door wide open for officials who would rather not share certain details with the public.

Karen Lucachik knows that well. She has attended public meetings in West Seneca for 13 years and has watched as a small group of residents who regularly speak grew from just a few to eight.

Like many, she first went to a town meeting because she had a complaint. But unlike most, she kept going back. “Don’t be hesitant,” she urges citizens.

You’ve got a right to know. But sometimes, finding out what you should know is the toughest part.