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Editorial: Amherst Ethics Board shows a welcome commitment to open government

There has been so much in the news lately about public officials shirking their responsibilities to open government that it comes as a refreshing surprise when someone follows the rules. It happened last week in Amherst.

The someone, in this case, is actually the Amherst Ethics Board, a once somnambulant panel that has started lately to flex its muscle. The board is recommending the removal of public officials who are – yes – shirking their responsibilities to open government.

Specifically, 55 elected or appointed town officials have failed to file a simple financial disclosure form that was created to protect the public against conflicts of interest, inadvertent or otherwise. Those 55 people represent about 18 percent of those who were required to make the disclosures by the April 30 deadline, although, in another bit of glass-half-full news, that figure represents an improvement over the 30 percent who failed to file last year.

These are not high-profile positions, for the most part. They include the Amherst Veterans Committee, the Glen Park Joint Board and the Open Government Advisory Board. Some of the failures to file may be just carelessness, it’s fair to say, or the importance of the rules may not be understood. But that importance is undeniable.

New York State has been rife with public officials who abused their public influence for private gain. Some level of disclosure of potential conflicts is the least that taxpayers have a right to expect, even of volunteers. The disclosure requirements might appropriately vary with the influence of the position, but some baseline of information is necessary.

The Amherst Ethics Board was not always so determined to carry out its mission. Indeed, Town Councilwoman Deborah Bruch Bucki said this is the first time she can recall the board enforcing the law’s requirements since she joined the board 11 years ago.

The Ethics Board has suggested that the Amherst Town Board dismiss those who failed to file when it meets on June 5. Bucki would prefer to offer those people a warning and an additional month’s grace. Frankly, either is fine, as long as the Town Board supports the ethics panel.

Also worthy of consideration is the Ethics Board’s recommendation that all future appointments be conditioned upon the filing of the disclosure forms within 30 days of the appointment and annually thereafter, upon pain of automatic removal. That would put some teeth into a reasonable requirement and, equally useful, help to weed out those who are unwilling to comply.

Western New Yorkers can hope the Ethics Board is demonstrating something that will catch on around the region: a commitment to demanding accountability. Either way, it’s good to see the board doing its job.

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