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Zemsky says regional council members' finances 'not public records'

ALBANY — New York collects personal financial information from more than 200 people who recommend which economic development projects should receive state aid, but officials say the public should not be allowed to review that information.

“These folks don’t have any statutory responsibility. They can’t actually enact anything based on their decision-making,’’ Howard Zemsky, the state’s top economic development official, said of members of 10 regional councils that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has called key elements to his regional approach to job creation efforts.

The issue arose during a lengthy joint state budget hearing Monday by the two legislative houses looking into the Cuomo administration’s new 2018 fiscal plans for economic development programs.

Lawmakers for a couple years have proposed – unsuccessfully – to make the state’s Regional Economic Development Councils subject to annual financial disclosure requirements, like that of thousands of state workers and people who serve on various state panels. They have argued the public has a right to know about the finances of the regional council members that have been portrayed from its start in 2011 as the best-situated to know of a specific region’s economic needs.

Cuomo, along with Zemsky, beat back those efforts, saying the councils serve in an advisory capacity with final decisions being made by state agencies. Further, Zemsky has said, requiring the volunteers to publicly disclose information about themselves would create a chilling effect on recruiting people for the councils.

Zemsky, a Buffalo businessman and chairman of Empire State Development Corp., the state’s chief economic development agency, said the state has collected a “statement of interest” from members of the regional panels. He said the requirement has been in place for one or two years, but an agency spokesman said it has been in place since the councils were first created seven years ago.

The information is collected, Zemsky told lawmakers, so “we can ensure there is no conflict” between the annual awards process and members of a regional council. The council’s recommendations form a key ingredient of what has averaged $750 million in annual total funding through the regional approach.

But Zemsky insisted, both with lawmakers and a handful of reporters after his testimony, that the written disclosures from members of the regional panels are not subject to the state’s Freedom of Information Law. “They’re not public records,’’ Zemsky said.

Kristin O’Neill, assistant executive director at the state Committee on Open Government, said any state record is subject to FOIL; she could not say, though, whether the specific details about the council members have to be made public by Zemsky’s agency. The Buffalo News on Monday submitted a FOIL seeking the “statement of interest” filings by members of all 10 regional councils.

“I don’t believe it is subject to FOIL,’’ Zemsky told reporters. He explained: “I’m basing it on what I think is the right legal answer.’’

The information collected is not from a specific form, but rather is required on the next to last page of a 64-page guide for regional council members. It states that 30 days after being appointment, and every year thereafter, council members must disclose to Empire State Development a written statement “identifying any entity, enterprise or real property (excluding personal residences) in which he or she, a spouse or unemancipated child, has an interest, whether as an owner, officer, director, employee, investor or consultant.’’

Zemsky stressed that the council volunteers are not public officers. “If the law changes, we’ll follow the new law,’’ he told reporters.

Zemsky testified before lawmakers for nearly four hours. His appearance was missing the verbal wars that happened during budget hearings the past couple years as lawmaker after lawmaker asked Zemsky about the status of projects in their home districts.

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