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Bar closing debate teaches a valuable civics lesson

Some saw the Erie County Legislature’s six-month foray into the merits of the late-night bar scene as an absurdist exercise that arrived at the status quo. In the end, after letting the proposal linger for months, a divided Legislature allowed bars to remain open until 4 a.m.

But something unusual happened last week: People packed Legislature Chambers to debate the pros and cons of rolling back the county’s last call at a public hearing that lasted nearly three hours.

Professors brought studies. Business owners brought stats. A grieving father made a passionate plea.

Legislators were hard pressed to remember such a packed public meeting in the five years since county government was roiled by a fight over funding for arts and cultural groups.

Public discussion on the bars was a good thing. People truly wanted to be heard on whether bars should be forced to close earlier.

And it almost didn’t happen.

Here’s the thing: Even legislators who were skeptical that they had anything new to hear said they learned something from the discussion.

“For the most part, it was riveting,” said Legislator Kevin Hardwick, a City of Tonawanda Republican who said he changed his vote after listening to several experts testify. “It really was.”

It’s not every day you hear the word “riveting” describe the Legislature.

Then again, there’s typically little opportunity for average members of the public to speak their minds in the Chambers of the Erie County Legislature. It’s not that the public isn’t welcome – there are plenty of empty seats for those who want to watch.

But county lawmakers hold their regular meetings during the workday. There’s no public comment period at those sessions, and unless someone’s there to pick up an honorary resolution, there are few fresh faces that show up to see Robert’s Rules of Order at work.

This isn’t lost on legislators, who say they reach out to constituents and would like to see more people involved.

“We have difficulty engaging the public on anything,” said Legislator Patrick Burke, a Buffalo Democrat. “I think there’s enough cynicism and apathy to go around that it’s hard to get especially young people involved at all. So is it a waste to have 50-something people show up and talk about an issue in civics? No.”

But, he added, there’s context. Burke was among legislators who initially opposed holding a hearing on the bar closings at all.

He noted that public hearings can be stacked and that the State Liquor Authority would have held its own hearing had county lawmakers recommended a change.

With little chance the proposal would pass, some saw a hearing as political cover for legislators reluctant to weigh in on a controversial topic.

“If you hadn’t gone out in your district and talked to people after this issue had been before us for six months, then that’s on you,” said Majority Leader Joseph Lorigo, a West Seneca Conservative.

Yes, legislators should do their homework. But shutting out public voices from formal debate on an issue that resonated with so many people would have only turned more people off from county government.

Elected officials don’t need to feed the apathy.

In the end, this hearing served its purpose. More voices have been heard. I’ll toast to that.