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Public officials need to stop charging for 'state of' speeches

Elected officials have long held annual addresses to inform the public about what is going on in their county, city, town or village. Akin to State of the Union and State of the State addresses, these presentations range in scale from small gatherings at the local library, town hall, community centers, etc., to bigger productions from local officials in higher levels of office.

Some of them charge people to attend. They shouldn’t. It needs to stop. Who is likelier to feel the need to attend such events than monied people who hope to benefit from public dollars?

Last month, Mayor Byron W. Brown’s more-than-$100,000 mega-production State of the City took that premise to another level.

Tickets to the Feb. 20 event at the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center cost $65 (lunch included), up from $15 last year. It brought in a record 2,200 attendees, some free of charge, mostly in a seating area that did not include lunch. Several companies donated thousands more to be listed as event sponsors.

Brown’s speech drew some of the usual crowd of city officials, neighborhood activists and civic leaders and developers, the latter of whom bought tickets to an event that may have felt mandatory, given their desire to be included (or, remain so) in the city’s resurgence. The optics become fuzzy whenever there is money involved, even if to cover expenses or for a good cause.

Excess funds go to Mayor Brown’s Fund to Advance Buffalo to support charitable organizations. The fund contained more than $265,000 in accumulated assets as of 2017, with revenue from State of the City luncheons going back to 2007.

None of the money has been distributed. The mayor said he wants to “do something that will significantly impact children and families.” It’s not a bad thought, if you first accept that idea that mayors and other officials should be charging for these events in the first place. But they shouldn’t be. It’s a municipal version of the legal concept known as the fruit of the poisonous tree.

Brown, who has charged for the event since first becoming mayor in 2006, is not the first mayor, county executive or other elected official who has charged for such presentations. Newspaper announcements dating back to the early 2000s offer registration information for State of the County and State of the City addresses by former Executive Joel A. Giambra and former Mayor Anthony M. Masiello. Lunch was included and, in one case, parking. One such announcement from 2013 told readers that Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz would deliver a modified version of his State of the County address. “Tickets cost $18 for a hot sandwich, soup and dessert.”

No. Stop.

The public should expect an annual policy/status report by an elected public official to cost, well, nothing. This is a public servant performing a public task. This zero-dollar admission feat has been accomplished by other mayors who spent far less than the $125,000 Brown paid for his event. Brown notes that no taxpayer money is involved. That’s good.

But still.

The mayor of Albany delivered her annual speech in the Albany Common Council chambers, free of charge and free of food. The Syracuse mayor’s 2020 State of the City speech was held – free of charge to the public – in the evening and in an auditorium of an academic building at Upstate Medical University, the largest employer in Central New York. And in Rochester, the speech often takes place in the evening at different venues. It is free and open to the public.

Those low-tech, free speeches draw only a smattering of attendees. It could be argued that those are the dedicated few who truly want to hear what their elected officials have to say. To be sure, they are the ones who matter the most.

Regardless, that approach is what should be happening here.

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