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Before lawmakers can join Bills community benefits negotiations, they'll have to sign NDA

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Highmark Stadium (copy) (copy)

While the stadium deal has largely been set, a community benefits agreement has yet to be resolved.

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Three Erie County legislators are being asked to sign a nondisclosure agreement before they'll be allowed to join negotiations over what benefits the community will receive in exchange for an $850 million public investment for a new Buffalo Bills stadium.

The private meetings are expected to begin next week.

Legislature Chairwoman April Baskin of Buffalo and Democratic Majority Leader Timothy Meyers of Cheektowaga said, despite some misgivings, they will sign the confidentiality agreement in order to get negotiations moving. Republican Legislator John Mills of Orchard Park said he will poll his colleagues before making a decision. 

County Executive Mark Poloncarz is requiring the nondisclosure agreement to keep them from speaking about the negotiations until an agreement is reached.

Acting County Attorney Jeremy Toth acknowledged a nondisclosure agreement is not legally required as part of negotiations, but said it is important for getting a deal done.

"You don't want to enter into a negotiation where everything can get aired in the press and in public," he said.

County administrators and some legislators didn't even want the discussion about the nondisclosure agreement to be public. Members of the Democratic majority sought to have a discussion about it in a closed session, but Republican-supported legislators objected.

A memo marked "confidential" from Franklin Jones Jr., the chief negotiator and legal counsel for the county on the stadium deal, stated that a confidentiality agreement was important for productive negotiations.

"Professional teams can be quite sensitive to bad press and public disclosures in these transactions are rarely made to shine a positive light on the team," he wrote. "Once they circle the wagons to protect themselves and their interests, it is difficult to get them back to constructive discussions."

He made several additional references to the impact of bad publicity, having information taken out of context and having the ability to shield information from public disclosure until the the agreements are complete.  

Baskin said it appears unlikely that all documents associated with the stadium deal will be approved by the Sept. 1 deadline, but she expects progress to be made, even if it means a special session must be convened during the Legislature's August recess.

Legislators have criticized the Bills stadium negotiations process because the three legislators who are supposed to help craft a community benefits agreement have not been part of a collective process to discuss what the agreement should include or what the community wants. Poloncarz has declined to answer questions about the matter.

Toth, however, said conversations were delayed because the county was waiting on state feedback regarding a community benefits agreement. The county received the state's rough draft of a community benefits agreement on July 7, he said.

County lawmakers were surprised that the state had developed its own initial draft of a community benefits agreement. Baskin said she had only heard the county was waiting on feedback from the state.

"I certainly didn't know the state was working on its own version of a CBA," she said.

Legislators spent an hour Thursday discussing the pros and cons of having three of their members sign a confidentiality agreement. 

"It's a $1.4 billion project, and I don't want to be challenged on transparency," Mills said.

"Neither do I," Baskin said. Baskin has been vocal about the need for a strong agreement to bring more investment back to the city and county as part of a final Bills stadium deal.

But she added that she will reluctantly sign the agreement because she doesn't want to further delay negotiations.

Baskin, Meyers and Mills were all initially expected to be part of a county negotiating team that would work with Poloncarz and others as early as April to privately discuss what a community benefits agreement should include. Baskin has said her support for a stadium deal would hinge on a strong commitment from the Bills to invest in the broader community.

But until now, they haven't met, resulting in accusations that legislators were being shut out of negotiations, especially as state representatives have said that negotiations over a community benefits agreement have been moving forward.

The state did not respond to requests for comment Thursday. A spokesman for the team declined to comment.

Toth said the Bills organization has not been given any information related to a potential community benefits agreement. 

Earlier this month, Baskin released a report outlining funding priorities after meeting with roughly two dozen public and private community stakeholders since November. The report had been privately shared earlier with state and county leaders.

Baskin said Thursday that her report reflects the feedback received by only her and that all three legislators deserve to participate collectively in the negotiations.

Minority Leader Joseph Lorigo put forth a resolution to have the legislators participate in community benefit negotiations without being required to sign any nondisclosure agreement, but that effort failed. He pointed out that Poloncarz has offered no updates on where things stand with the stadium deal in months.

"The entire community stands to benefit from this agreement," he said. "Not being able to speak about it with each other, or with the community, is a negative, any way you look at it." 

Democratic legislators who are not on the negotiating committee said they and other community stakeholders have to place their faith in Baskin, Mills and Meyers. 

"We have to trust that the folks that are doing the negotiations and sitting at that table are doing it for the benefit of everyone here, and not just themselves," Legislator Howard Johnson said.

The three legislators on the committee said they will continue to receive and collect feedback on what should be in a community benefits agreement, even if they can't talk about what's on the table.

"We need to start hearing from you guys immediately," Baskin said. "But what I will not do is put myself in a position to not be at the negotiating table after almost a year of fighting for us to get to this point."

Read the terms of the nondisclosure agreement and the letter from county legislators asking why the NDA is necessary:

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I use the Erie County government beat to find issues and stories that tell us something important about how we live. An alumna of the Columbia Journalism School and Buffalo News staff reporter since 2000, I can be reached at stan@buffnews.com

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