After years of pressure from an open government group, the Niagara County Legislature may open county officials' financial disclosure forms to the public.
"I think it's great news. Twenty-two years overdue," Paul W. Wolf, chairman of the Buffalo Niagara Coalition for Open Government, said Monday.
The Legislature is expected to vote Tuesday on scheduling a public hearing for May 7 on a revised financial disclosure law. The revised law would end the sealing of disclosure forms and add election challengers and political party chairs to the list of those who must file them.
If the law passes, the public and media would be able to use the state Freedom of Information Act to see the disclosures in time for the June 25 primary election as well as the November election.
"No other county has a law like Niagara County has had, saying their disclosure forms are confidential," Wolf said.
When the County Legislature adopted a code of ethics in 1996, it sealed the disclosure forms because it didn't want them used as political ammunition.
"That was the original intent, that they couldn't use it in political campaigns, you know, 'This guy's half a million dollars in debt, he can't handle county finances,' " said Legislator Dennis F. Virtuoso, D-Niagara Falls, who served at the time the original law was passed.
The revised law would apply to all county-level elected officials and their opponents, as well as the boards of the Niagara County Industrial Development Agency and Niagara County Community College. Also required to file would be the county chairs of all political parties and all "county employees who hold policymaking positions."
"We mean all the department heads and their deputies and anyone else who is in a policy-making position," said Legislator Richard L. Andres Jr., R-North Tonawanda, who chaired a committee that wrote the law with advice from the state Committee on Open Government.
The forms must include the name of any corporation in which the official, his or her spouse and minor children hold at least a 5 percent stake; any income-producing real estate, not counting their homes; and any employment or membership that earns them at least $500 a year.
Incumbents would file by May 15; challengers would file seven days after the deadline to file nominating petitions. That deadline happened last week, but Andres said he thinks the challengers would be required to file this year anyway.