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Editorial: Erie County Water Authority makes clear that Albany needs to toughen disclosure laws

Toughening disclosure laws would go a long way in preventing the type of disquieting opaqueness being carried out by the ethically lawless leaders of the Erie County Water Authority.

If ever the time comes, it will be difficult if not impossible to hide behind vague explanations as to why the public is not entitled to the details of how its money is being spent.

The authority seems to crave the darkness, believing it to be a better place from which to operate. It is the epitome of political patronage at virtually every level, including the boardroom and executive office.

The latest slipperiness involving the authority has to do with its action last year in declaring a purchasing “emergency” in order to hire a law firm and then managing to amass $129,500 in legal fees. Commissioners then turned around and insulted the ratepayers by refusing to say what kind of legal work was done at that cost.

Nor will they explain exactly why they hired Phillips Lytle last November or what the lawyers are engaged in. This is the antithesis of transparency.

The origination of this particular cloak in the form of legal expenses began after Investigative Post, a nonprofit investigative journalism organization, published a story Nov. 7, which aired on WGRZ. The story accused the authority of “cutting corners” in its water testing for lead. One of its reporters, Dan Telvock, showed up at an agency board meeting and tried to talk to commissioners about the lead testing.

It so happened that at the board’s next meeting in December, the commissioners approved funding for a “state of emergency.” Next came the hiring of a politically connected lawyer at Phillips Lytle at a rate of $400 per hour “to represent the Erie County Water Authority in action against Investigative Post for improper conduct,” The Buffalo News learned from documents the authority handed over in response to Freedom of Information Law requests. Getting the information was not easy, nor did it seem complete.

The public should demand, and state lawmakers should be held accountable for, the strengthening of disclosure requirements, and the penalties for obstruction, when the public has a right to know. Whether a private citizen or the media attempting to inform and educate an audience, a public entity such as the authority should take as its mantra full disclosure.

The Buffalo News routinely inquired about its broadly worded emergency purchasing resolution: “to provide expert advice and representation and review legal and potential environmental issues.”

This newspaper followed up with two FOIL requests after failing to receive even scant explanation. It wasn’t until the most recent FOIL request from June that the authority responded. Heavily redacted invoices from Phillips Lytle covering professional services from Nov. 15 through May 16 is hardly an adequate response.

Also absent in the thin response is any mention of Investigative Post on the 30 pages of redacted invoices, despite the FOIL specifically requesting all invoices related to the Investigative Post matter.

Attorney-client privilege is specific and relating to legal strategy and advice and not a general description of services, as Robert Freeman, executive director of the New York State Committee on Open Government, told a News reporter. The authority has the ability and certainly responsibility to divulge the reason for hiring Phillips Lytle.

Legislation introduced by Sen. Patrick Gallivan, R-Elma, and Democratic Assemblywoman Amy Paulin of Westchester County, which has passed both the Assembly and Senate, requires the court to require payment of attorneys’ fees when an agency denies access to freedom of information requests and if the court finds that the agency had no reasonable basis for denying access to the records sought.

Meanwhile the Water Authority invoices total: $129,507. The shroud around the invoices: priceless.

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