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Editorial: OTB and the public trust

More secrets, this time from the shadowy gamblers who lead the Western Regional Off-Track Betting Corp.

Officials there are betting that they can get away with hiding the identities of people they favor with complimentary tickets to Buffalo Bills and Sabres games. It’s a $250,000 benefit – the cost of suites at the games – and offered by the 15 counties and two cities, including Buffalo, that own the regional OTB.

Which is to say, it is offered by the residents of those municipalities.

The OTB has refused to release the names of people who have received free tickets from the public on the specious grounds that, once identified, the high rollers who frequently benefit from the OTB’s largesse might be seduced into gambling elsewhere.

That’s the official explanation. Another is that OTB itself has something to hide.

Regardless, its position is unsustainable, as members of the Erie County Legislature made plain in a hearing last week. Minority Leader Joseph Lorigo put the question about the ticket beneficiaries succinctly: “But aren’t they benefiting from taxpayer dollars in some way?” he asked. “You’re a public benefit corporation, so shouldn’t those names be public?”

Legislator Kevin Hardwick, D-Tonawanda, was similarly skeptical of OTB’s position. “Public employees, as part of their job, are hosting these gatherings at the Bills game. Why would we not want to know who they are? Why not share that information?”

The Buffalo News and other organizations lodged Freedom of Information Law requests for the identities of those the public is hosting. Batavia Downs Gaming, owned by Western Regional OTB, rejected that request.

The episode offers disturbing reminders of how the Erie County Water Authority once conducted its business – in secret and with disdain for the public. Under new leadership, it seems to have gotten religion about its obligation to transparency. Plainly, though, it is not the only agency ever to hold a lordly view of itself.

Nobody ever said democracy was easy or efficient. There is a cost to self-government that, beyond its frequently cumbersome processes, includes disclosing who is drinking from the public trough – even if it embarrasses them or otherwise roils the waters.

Or, as Lorigo said: “I think we should strive in government, whether quasi-government organizations such as public benefit corporations, should be as transparent as possible when dealing with the public trust.”

The public trust. Now there’s concept.

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