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Editorial: Niagara County Legislature shouldn't stiff-arm the public

In Niagara County, the Legislature is mistreating its citizens and breaking the law. It may be about to fix part of that problem, but the body remains devoted to secrecy.

The matter arose when legislators began to fret that members of the public might want to talk to them. Voters at meetings of the Legislature might see secret papers or hear secret conversations if they were allowed, as they have previously been able, to walk onto the floor of the county Legislature during breaks.

“The public has its area, and we have our area,” sniffed Minority Leader Dennis F. Virtuoso, D-Niagara Falls. Legislature Chairman W. Keith McNall, R-Lockport, bought into it, too. Legislators and department heads were worried about security and confidentiality, he said.

But that was only the start, because committee meetings – which are required by law to be open to the public – are held in a room whose access is across the Legislature floor. If the change in policy wasn’t a subterfuge to keep the pain-in-the-neck public out of committee meetings, that was the impact, nonetheless.

“My God, it’s gotten like we’re the enemy, the citizens,” said 75-year-old Sonia Dusza of North Tonawanda, a member of the Buffalo Niagara Open Government Coalition. “It’s gotten beyond ridiculous.”

That it has.

Look, this is an easy concept. American government is, by law and Constitution, open government. Public officials are conducting public business. The public gets to be in on it. There are certain closely defined exceptions, but the tender feelings of county legislators are not among them.

First and foremost, the Legislature needs to restore public access to its committee meetings. Their action in blocking the public, even inadvertently, is a gross violation of the law and of their obligations as public servants.

That may happen.

Paul W. Wolf, president of the open government coalition, called the lawbreaking to the attention of legislators and Virtuoso acknowledged the fact. “Paul Wolf is right about that,” the minority leader said. “The public should not be barred from the committee meetings.”

McNall said he would discuss with other legislators Wolf’s recommendation that those meetings be held on the floor of the Legislature.

That’s a good step, but it was only necessitated by legislators’ decision to stiff-arm the public in the first place. Lawmakers will do themselves and their constituents a big favor by reversing that rule and, if it truly is a concern, find other ways to guard their privacy.

“What’s the big deal here?” Dusza 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.”

But, then, this: The reason the coalition attended was to protest legislators’ decision to exempt county officials’ financial disclosure forms from the Freedom of Information Law. They just love their secrets in Lockport.

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