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Editorial: Keeping secrets in Orchard Park

Whatever behind-the-scenes issues Orchard Park Police Chief Mark F. Pacholec is coping with, we hope they are nothing too serious, such as illness or a family emergency.

But we don’t know. A cone of silence surrounds the town’s decision to put him on paid administrative leave around the beginning of March, for unexplained reasons, but not announcing the leave until three weeks later. The town also said he would retire in early May, and then negotiated a generous severance package for him, as reported in The News on Friday.

The agreement, approved Wednesday by the Town Board, will give Pacholec a 20 percent pay increase for this year, 80 compensatory paid days off and up to $12,500 in longevity pay.

Are those parting gifts too lavish for the 22-year public servant, or well-deserved? Again, we don’t know. Town officials are illegally keeping the separation agreement under wraps. In the view of Orchard Park officials, the retirement of the police chief is public business that the taxpaying public is not entitled to know about. This will not hold up to legal challenges, nor should it.

The town attorney’s reasoning is that a confidentiality clause in the agreement prevents its release. Robert J. Freeman, executive director of the state Committee on Open Government, disagrees. Freeman told The News that keeping the contract private, notwithstanding the confidentiality clause, violates the Freedom of Information Law.

“The courts have held time and again that an agreement requiring confidentiality cannot overcome rights conferred in the Freedom of Information Law,” Freeman said.

The town wasn’t saying much when Pacholec was put on leave last month.

“The Town Board and Chief Pacholec are currently working through some issues,” Orchard Park Supervisor Patrick Keem told The News in a March email. “While we do so, we have asked him to take time away from the office.”

Keem’s announcement last month that the chief would retire coincided with a special meeting the Town Board had called to discuss undisclosed “disciplinary issues” in the Police Department. The meeting did not take place, and Keem said the chief would retire.

An attorney for Pacholec, Andrew Fleming, said the subject of the meeting was not disciplinary measures.

“My sense of it was he was really, really good at what he did,” Fleming said. “He may have ruffled feathers along the way.”

Late in 2018, the Town Board discussed Pacholec’s $151,208 salary, which it said was above the “fair market value” of chiefs in similar communities. Keem said the board’s issue with the chief was unrelated to his pay.

Why was Pacholec put on suspension, then given the option to retire with a shiny golden parachute? That’s the $151,200 question, give or take a few dollars.

The News’ journalists will continue seeking a copy of the separation agreement through the Freedom of Information Law.

Similarly, it took a FOIL filing for the public to learn the terms of the severance package given to Dawn Sanders-Garrett when she resigned as executive director of the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority in March 2018.

Sanders-Garrett received a $107,250 severance payment along with paid health insurance benefits worth $16,344, for a total value of $123,594.

Sanders-Garrett’s agreement also contained a confidentiality clause, and the BMHA initially refused to release the contract or its details. It later released it in response to The News’ FOIL request.

Now it’s happening again. Freedom of Information and other sunshine laws exist to protect the public’s right to know. Without members of the media and others initiating the requests, and courts enforcing the laws, there would be less accountability in how public money is spent.

Orchard Park’s Town Board owes its constituents answers, not obfuscations.

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