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After two-year dormancy, city Ethics Board comes back to life

When former Buffalo Deputy Mayor Ellen E. Grant returned to City Hall in the same position two months ago,  she was still on Bank on Buffalo’s Board of Advisors, which provides guidance to the bank. Members are paid for their service.

When The Buffalo News initially inquired about a possible conflict of interest related to a top city official advising a bank and getting paid to do so, the bank and city spokesman Michael J. DeGeorge said Grant would continue to serve on the board. There were “no conflicts of interest as long as she abstains from any matters involving the city,” DeGeorge responded.

Days later, Grant resigned from her seat on the board.

But getting an official opinion from the city's Ethics Board before she resigned would have been problematic. The board – which reviews conflict of interest complaints against city employees and officials as well as the annual financial disclosure statements they file – didn't have a quorum and hasn't met since Nov. 1, 2017.

And when The News started asking about it, there was even confusion about who is actually on the board.

After officials cleared up that confusion, the board now has a quorum and is scheduled to meet Sept. 10. During the 22 months there hasn't been a quorum, no filings of financial disclosure statements have slipped through the cracks, they insist.

"Nothing has been sent to the City Clerk's Office by way of inquiry that we haven't looked at," said Board Chairman Douglas Coppola, an attorney.

According to the City Charter, the board includes the city clerk, Tianna Marks; the city’s corporation counsel, Timothy A. Ball; and five members appointed by the mayor who have been nominated by the Ethics Board’s nominating committee.

Following a Buffalo News inquiry, Coppola said there were two vacancies on the board  and that the nominating committee had submitted a January 2018 letter to Mayor Byron W. Brown nominating attorney Meghan M. Brown, a partner with Goldberg Segalla who is not related to the mayor, to fill one of the vacancies. Coppola said he had been inquiring about the status of Meghan Brown's nomination and had been in touch with Ball because no action had been taken.

Meanwhile, a top official in the Brown administration said that the board consisted of Coppola, Marks and Ball, and that the terms of four others had expired. The board needed one appointment to make a quorum. When asked about the status of Meghan Brown's nomination, the administration official said that because no action was taken by the Common Council within 90 days of the  letter nominating Meghan Brown, her appointment was confirmed, as per the City Charter.

But in addition to the new member, Coppola said he was advised that his term, as well as the terms of James Magavern and Eleanor Paterson, were "re-upped."

So now the Ethics Board  has a six-member quorum that includes Coppola, Magavern, Paterson, Ball, Marks and Brown, according to the city clerk's office.

That leaves just one vacancy awaiting a nomination, Coppola said.

The Ethics Board, which reviews and receives and files annual financial disclosure statements, checks to make sure every city officer and employee who is supposed to file a statement does so, Coppola said.

“And that’s followed up through the city clerk’s office. The city clerk’s office advises us as to the completeness of the filings. If the filings are not complete, we ask the city clerk to advise the person that a filing was not made,” Coppola said, adding that the board does not have its own administrative staff.

There is no concern that some people haven't filed their statements during the time the Ethics Board has not met, he said.

"That hasn't been a problem. Everybody who is supposed to has been filing them," Coppola said, adding that the disclosure forms are not "extensive or intrusive."

“This is not like an IRS audit. It’s pretty broad-based,” he said.

As for complaints of conflicts of interest, when a possible violation is reported, the city clerk’s office provides copies to the Board of Ethics, which reviews the complaint.  To his knowledge, there have been no filings of such complaints during the time the board has not had a quorum.

Notification of complaints would come from the city clerk's office.

“We don’t go out beating the bushes looking for possible violations. We receive the information. There’s a mechanism that in the event there is a substantiated complaint, that we have the authority to look at the circumstances and determine if a hearing is necessary,” Coppola said.

“Citizens can bring complaints to us. Complaints come from various sources, and we have to look at it,” he said.

The board makes a final ruling, depending on the circumstances, he said.

“We would have to look at the code to advise. We have no authority regarding civil service status, their union status. We have the authority to render fines. We have the right to recommend action” such as suspension or termination, Coppola said.  “We don’t have the authority to suspend or terminate.”

News Business Reporter Matt Glynn contributed to this report.

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