For all of the talk of political revolution this year, there is one reform the populace has been strangely silent about: Stopping their officials from hijacking government by doing public business in private.
From the University at Buffalo Foundation’s secrecy over $1 billion in assets, to the Buffalo Police Department’s refusal to release video of the assault on a jailed suspect, to the Hamburg School Board’s secret meetings to try to oust one of its members, disdain for the public’s right to know seems to be a prerequisite for assuming power here.
Attorney Paul Wolf has seen – or often not seen – enough after watching elected bodies shut the doors on what should be done openly. Wolf, who has addressed town boards, filed freedom-of-information requests and written articles about it, is planning the next step: a grass-roots organization of law and journalism students, attorneys, academics, activists and others to force open local government.
He will try to launch the Buffalo Niagara Coalition for Open Government 5 p.m. Tuesday in the Partnership for the Public Good offices at 617 Main St. Wolf has invited 40 to 50 like-minded people to discuss forming the nonprofit, nonpartisan group to monitor local governments, educate officials and the public and hand out awards that applaud or shame officials as need be.
“Every politician is sensitive to publicity,” Wolf noted.
Seminars and online resources explaining the Freedom of Information and Open Meetings laws might help those officials who honestly don’t know. But others just don’t care; And they can afford not to because if caught, weak penalties merely make them do what they should have done in the first place.
“I don’t know where that mentality comes from,” Wolf said, as baffled as I am by the transformation of otherwise good people who suddenly crave secrecy once they get elected or appointed. Maybe they think the people smart enough to empower them still aren’t smart enough to comprehend a sensitive issue dealt with in public. Or maybe it’s the opposite sentiment: Anybody dumb enough to vote for me couldn’t possibly understand this.
Either way, it insults the public.
The final straw for Wolf came when he tried to address the Amherst Town Board after it formed an open government committee but Supervisor Barry Weinstein moved to abolish the panel after a year. Wolf wanted to address the matter but wasn’t called upon because he didn’t get his name on the sign-in sheet before Weinstein collected it.
“I come to speak on an open government committee, and he wouldn’t let me speak because I didn’t sign in on time,” Wolf said. “I shouldn’t have to engage in battle with public officials to exercise my right to speak for three minutes.” The motion went nowhere, and the committee still meets. Weinstein, who chaired the panel, said he had no problems with it. He and Wolf agree it made Amherst government more open through such changes as posting more information on the town’s web site. But they strongly disagree on whether the committee’s work was done after the first year.
It should be clear that, given the imperious attitudes of some stuffed shirts when it comes to the public’s right to know, such work is never done. That’s why Western New York needs this new coalition.