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Editorial: Demand transparency from local government

People throw around the word “transparency” these days like a Frisbee at a summer picnic. But if there is one aspect of public life that demands it, that would be the financial ties of our elected officials.

The Buffalo Niagara Coalition for Open Government last week issued a report calling on officials in every municipality to disclose personal financial information and post it online. It’s startling that the reminder is even needed.

The governments of Cheektowaga and Erie County rated highest in the report’s transparency rankings, including 75 percent of the items the coalition says should be on every form. Amherst and Clarence were on the low end of the 10 ranked governments, addressing just two of the 16 items.

The coalition threw shade at Niagara County’s government, which does not post its disclosure forms online because, preposterously, a local law forbids it.

As coalition President Paul Wolf said, “What’s the point of financial disclosure if no one can see it?”

State law requires that financial disclosure forms are submitted each year for officials of governments representing 50,000 or more people, according to Wolf. He says, rightly, that’s not good enough.

“All local governments regardless of population size should voluntarily adopt the practice of completing financial disclosure forms as a way to promote ethics and transparency,” the report states.

Wolf added that only six municipal or county governments meet the population threshold of 50,000, and none in Niagara County except the county government itself.

Why is transparency so important for public officials? For starters, it’s our money that funds the government, our tax dollars at work. So when an official has friends and family on the town payroll, we need to know about it. Otherwise, municipal treasuries become breeding grounds for corruption and cronyism.

The report said that Cheektowaga is the only municipality of the 10 rated to require the disclosure of relatives working on the town payroll.

“Knowing what businesses are owned by a registered domestic partner, children, grandchildren, parents, sisters, brothers, and grandparents; the parents, children, sisters, and brothers of your spouse or registered domestic partner; the spouses or registered domestic partners of your parents, children, brothers and sisters is important information,” the report says. “Whether these individuals are on the municipal payroll is important information for conflicts of interest and nepotism concerns as well.”

Every year is an election year somewhere. Politicians and other officials would be smart to embrace the coalition’s call to make their financial ties public. If they don’t, the voters will notice and officeholders who cling to a desire for secrecy may soon find themselves free to pursue opportunities in the private sector.

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