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Critics cry foul over recess rule barring public from Niagara Legislature floor

Sonia Dusza just wanted to talk to a legislator during a break at a Niagara County Legislature meeting.

But the 75-year-old North Tonawanda resident didn't get far Tuesday when she left the public gallery and stepped onto the floor where the lawmakers sit at their desks.

An armed sheriff's deputy told her to leave that part of the chamber.

"My God, it's gotten like we're the enemy, the citizens," said Dusza, a member of the Buffalo Niagara Open Government Coalition. "It's gotten beyond ridiculous."

A new rule barring the public from the Legislature floor during recesses also prevents the public from attending committee meetings, which are held in a back room accessible only by crossing the floor, said Paul W. Wolf, president of the coalition.

"Holding a legislative committee meeting in a back room where members of the public are not allowed to observe – and are prevented from doing so by an armed guard – is a clear violation of the New York State Open Meetings Law," Wolf told legislators in an email Wednesday. "This practice has to stop immediately."

Dusza said she hadn't been to a Legislature meeting in a while and was unaware of the new rule.

"It surprised me. I wasn't doing anything wrong," Dusza said Wednesday. "In the past, that was not a problem."

Dusza said she and others, including reporters, used to step through a swinging gate in a waist-high wall in front of the spectator area and walk onto the Legislature floor to speak to lawmakers during breaks.

"The public has its area, and we have our area," said Minority Leader Dennis F. Virtuoso, D-Niagara Falls, the lawmaker Dusza sought to talk to.

The deputy who spoke to Dusza "was just doing his job. He was polite," Virtuoso said.

Legislature Chairman W. Keith McNall, R-Lockport, said concerns from legislators and department heads about security and confidentiality of their conversations and paperwork brought about a change in the old policy allowing informal access.

"We have confidential information on our desks," said Virtuoso, who noted that members of the public aren't allowed on the floor of Congress or the State Legislature.

But Wolf's contention has leaders rethinking the practice of barring the public from committee meetings.

"Paul Wolf is right about that," Virtuoso said. "The public should not be barred from the committee meetings."

"I will be approaching the legislators to further discuss Mr. Wolf's recommendation that recess meetings be held out on the floor," McNall said.

County Attorney Claude A. Joerg said he expects the committee meetings to be in the larger, more public space from now on.

The rule adopted earlier this year isn't posted in the Legislature chambers, McNall confirmed.

Dusza took a dim view of the new lack of access to legislators.

"What's the big deal here?" she asked. "In the past, if we had a concern, we wanted to speak with a legislator, it was not a big deal to go and speak in that area."

The coalition attended Tuesday's meeting to urge the Legislature to repeal its law exempting county officials' financial disclosure forms from the Freedom of Information Law.

Joerg said the current policy of keeping the forms secret is permitted by a different state law.

Virtuoso said Niagara County's 1996 financial disclosure law was crafted by then-District Attorney Matthew J. Murphy III and then-County Attorney Glenn S. Hackett specifically to allow only the Board of Ethics, the sheriff and the district attorney to see the forms.

Virtuoso said they were worried that a legislator's personal finances or debts could become political ammunition.

"They didn't want people to use those financial disclosures on a political postcard," Virtuoso said.

The state's General Municipal Law allows local governing bodies to make regulations on public availability of the forms, Joerg said.

Wolf said state Freedom of Information experts and at least two courts say otherwise.

"How are any of you going to be able to convince your constituents and the public at large that your disclosure forms should be confidential?" Wolf asked the legislators. "Good government is open government and perception is reality. Refusing to make your disclosure forms public fuels the perception that you have something to hide."

"I told all the legislators, continue to review the correspondence from Mr. Wolf and get back with me and discuss it," McNall said.

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