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Former supervisor faults Amherst compliance with ethics law he wrote

If your elected official had a financial stake in something he or she was voting upon, wouldn't you like to know about it?

Thirty percent of the approximately 246 Amherst officials who were required to file a financial disclosure statement by April 30, 2016, still haven't filed it, according to the town clerk's office. That's a violation a town ethics law, said Williamsville attorney Daniel J. Ward.

Ward has an interest in seeing full compliance with the law. He authored it in the early 1990s while serving as town supervisor when he thought town officials and developers were too cozy with one another during a frenzy of building in the town.

"It was corrupt to the point where people weren't disclosing their interests," Ward said. "That's why we wrote the law and I think the law should be enforced. Like any law, if it's not going to be enforced they should at least have the courage to repeal it and be subject to the criticism that would entail."

Filling out the short and straightforward financial disclosure questionnaire isn't an onerous burden, Ward said.

One question asks: "Do you receive any benefits, compensation or other consideration that are derived directly or indirectly from your employment or association with the Town of Amherst, other than your remuneration from the Town?"

The law requires all town officials who are elected and appointed, paid or unpaid, including the members of the various boards and committees, to file the form.

Many of the delinquent filers are appointed members of little-known committees that operate quietly and largely behind the scenes, such as the 9/11 Commemoration Committee, the Amherst Committee on Disabilities and the Amherst Community Diversity Commission. Others wield more power such as members of the Planning Board, Amherst Industrial Development Agency and Zoning Board of Appeals.

"A lot of those names I saw, they're very decent people," said Ward, who sought documents about compliance under the state Freedom of Information Law request. "I know them, they're committeemen and women in one party or another. Some of them are friends of mine. I'm sure they're not criminals or hiding something. But somebody has to tell them, 'Hey, this is the law.' And apparently nobody's done that. That's lacking in leadership."

This year's deadline for filing ethics statements is also April 30. So far, 167 of 248 people – 67 percent – have complied. The Ethics Board will issue a report May 15. Those who failed to file last year are not required to make up the missed filing.

People don't file statements mainly for one of three reasons, said Town Attorney Stanley J. Sliwa. There's been a change in address and the letter from the town clerk never reached its intended recipient. Also, some people mistakenly believed they did not need to file.

"The third group is people who just forgot," Sliwa said.

What happens to people who don't file?

"That's what the Ethics Board is struggling with," Sliwa said.

Ethics Board Chairman Kevin M. Maley referred all questions to Sliwa.

Delinquent filers can be subject to disciplinary actions by the Ethics Board, but it has limited powers. At a hearing, it must be established that there was "willful and intentional failure to file," Sliwa said.

"It's a tough standard," he added.

The person could be fined a civil penalty up to $10,000 for failing to file or making a false statement, or the matter could be referred to the District Attorney's Office. But that's highly unlikely, Sliwa said.

"The practicality is the District Attorney's Office is not going to criminally prosecute people who have failed to file financial disclosure forms after only one year," he said.

While the five-member Ethics Board should be the "aggressive watchdog of the ethics law," real power rests with the Town Board, Ward said. It has power to appoint and remove committee members.

"The Town Board should be leading the attack on this," Ward said.

Councilwoman Debbie Bucki agreed there's a problem. That's why in early January she sponsored a resolution "respectfully" requesting that the town clerk assure full compliance and send follow-up notices to those who fail to file on time.

Her resolution passed, but only by a 3-2 vote with support from the board's two other Democrats.

"I think it's important," said Bucki, who noted she would be filing her 2017 disclosure on Monday. "Let's see for 2017 the status of who completes it by the end of April."

Ward said during his tenure as supervisor he wrote letters to non-filers to compel them to comply.

"If they didn't like it I guess they quit," he said.

Ward said serving on a board or committee should be seen as a privilege, and its responsibilities should not be ignored.

"It's not like we're a small town and we don't have enough people to go around and populate these committees," said Ward. "There's a lot of people who would truly like to serve on these things. They tend to be kind of coveted appointments."

Town of Amherst Financial Disclosure Form by Michael McAndrew on Scribd

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