The Village of Lancaster's economic development arm is refusing to publicly release a copy of the only proposal submitted for the purchase of a nearly 5-acre parcel on West Main Street that the village hopes will jump-start the revival of its downtown business district.
In a one-paragraph explanation, Village Clerk Michael E. Stegmeier denied a Freedom of Information request that The Buffalo News filed on Dec. 1 which sought a copy of the proposal submitted to the Lancaster Community Development Corporation by an investment group led by Mark S. Aquino, the agency's former longtime legal counsel.
"I have been advised that such disclosure would impair present or imminent contract award," Stegmeier wrote, citing New York Public Officers Law, section 87, one day after The News submitted its FOI request.
The LCDC, which has listed the West Main Street property for sale for $845,000, sought proposals by Nov. 21 for the purchase and development of the site.
The agency's board meets Wednesday morning and it may discuss and vote upon the lone proposal submitted, by the group led by Aquino, who was also formerly the LCDC's property manager. The agency could approve a contract to purchase or lease the dead-end West Main Street property.
Robert J. Freeman, executive director of the New York State Committee on Open Government, disagreed with the village's denial of The Buffalo News' request for a copy of the Acquino proposal. In an interview with The News, Freeman said that since the LCDC's deadline for submitting proposals has passed, that ruled out one of two possible exceptions that could have barred the release of the proposal.
"Since the deadline for proposals has been reached, how would disclosure adversely affect the process?" Freeman said, noting that only one proposal was submitted. "Once the deadline has been reached, nobody else can come forward."
Freeman said the village could withhold a portion of the document if disclosure would reveal a trade secret, but he said that seemed unlikely.
"Often, depending on the nature of the contract, there may be a great deal of technical information, or current financial information, which if disclosed, could be disadvantageous to a private company if disclosed to a competitor," Freeman said. "That just doesn't seem to be relevant."
The village clerk's FOI denial was based on consultations with Village Attorney Arthur A. Herdzik and Buffalo attorney James L. Magavern, the outside counsel recently hired by the LCDC on the project.
Magavern told The News that the submitted proposal may be subject to "further negotiations."
"They may improve upon the proposal," he said. "The request for proposals allows for negotiations after the proposal has been received. That's the exception. They (the CDC) can say, 'Look, we won't award this unless you do this or that.' "
"That's why you have a request for proposals instead of locked bids," Magavern said.
Herdzik concurred. "The final terms of the proposal have yet to be resolved, and the proposal and the potential response of the CDC may be compromised if the terms of the initial proposal are disclosed," he said Tuesday.
But Freeman disagreed.
"With whom does this entity compete? Nobody. They are the only proposal," he said.