As Buffalo becomes more transparent, Niagara Falls is as secretive as hell

BY FRANK PARLATO

Late last year, Buffalo City Comptroller Mark J. F. Schroeder created an online database called Open Book Buffalo. A website, it is updated biweekly, and publishes all of the City of Buffalo’s expenditures and revenue, allowing everyone to see detailed financial information while Buffalo spends some $480 million per year.

Indeed, Buffalo has become so transparent that everything that was formerly available only through Freedom of Information Law Requests (FOIL), is available to the public on Schroeder’s Open Book Buffalo website.

“With Open Book Buffalo, the city’s finances are out there for the whole world to see,” said Schroeder. “This openness promotes accountability, efficiency, and citizen participation in government.”

In fact Schroeder is even tackling the secretive public benefit corporations – the municipal authorities and public agencies – and he plans to be post these entities’ entire revenue and expenses online.

“It’s the taxpayers’ money – they deserve to know how it is being spent,” Schroeder said.

These entities – namely the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority, the Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency and the Buffalo Sewer Authority have their counterparts in Niagara Falls, namely the Niagara Falls Water Board, Niagara Falls Urban Renewal Agency and Niagara Falls Municipal Housing Authority – all of these are pretty secretive when it comes to how they spend their money.

Just like Dyster.

In Buffalo it may be true that the Mayor, Byron Brown, doesn’t like Open Book Buffalo very much. But there is nothing he can do about it since the Buffalo Comptroller is elected by the people. His position is meant to be independent and to act as a watchdog for taxpayers.

In Niagara Falls, however, the controller is appointed by the mayor (with council ratification).

Recently, Mayor Dyster removed the longtime and extremely competent city controller, Maria Brown.

There was a lot of rumor and innuendo about why he fired her but one thing is true – she was very outspoken, especially for an appointed controller.

Maria Brown.

Maria Brown.

She was fired – whether or not this was the reason – and not long after she told the mayor and the council in front of the media that, with casino cash dwindling, Dyster was spending too much and the city was plunging into deep structural deficits. A control board was inevitable if he didn’t stop giving subsidies to millionaire developers and state agencies which should fund themselves, and to the mayor’s cadre of politically supportive not-for-profits who should be able to support themselves but don’t, since Dyster will use taxpayers’ money to help them. (How the hell do you think he got reelected two times anyway? He bought votes while his opponents had to campaign for them).

But, as punishment for her comments, it would seem, Maria Brown was removed as controller, and Dyster appointed a part time controller (who wouldn’t be around too much) Sandy Peploe, whose congenial nature and part time status, plus a generous part time salary, probably precludes her from issuing dire warnings that might put a damper on Dyster’s spending.

So naturally enough, unlike Buffalo, there is no online Open Book Niagara Falls where everything a citizen might want to know and seek to FOIL is already available online.

Buffalo’s Comptroller Schroeder understands it.

He said he wanted any financial information that is subject to the Freedom of Information Law to be available on Open Book Buffalo.

“Anyone who has ever had to request information through the Freedom of Information Law knows that it can often be an arduous and time consuming process,” said Schroeder. “With Open Book Buffalo, you don’t have to file a formal FOIL request and then wait for a response, you can get the information you want with a click of a mouse.”

dyster123But Mayor Dyster in Niagara Falls is not transparent like Mr. Schroeder.

Not only has he made no effort to put the city’s true financial revenue and expenditures online, it seems he doesn’t want people to make FOIL requests either.

Following a series of FOIL requests made by the Niagara Falls Reporter and former Mayor Vince Anello last year, Dyster changed city policy in violation of the Freedom of Information Law, which requires a government agency to respond in a legally prescribed way and to respond within a few days.

In 2015, and it just so happened that Dyster was getting ready to run for reelection, and, at the same time, he was being pestered by the Reporter and Anello for information about government spending that any citizen is legally entitled to obtain.

Dyster, who is always good at making adjustments, decided that his administration’s new policy would be different than other municipalities. The intent might be hard to fathom, but the effect was soon seen. FOIL request made to the City of Niagara Falls were delayed as long as possible (and some of them until after the election.)

Here was Dyster’s new FOIL plan: When someone makes a FOIL request it is submitted to the city clerk, who reviews it, then refers it to the corporation counsel who reviews it (critics say the review was for the mayor, for his political safety) and deter mines if the public has a right to know, then, if the corporation counsel approved it. (which often he did not) it is sent back to the city clerk who, in turn, sends it to the department head who would have the information requested.

After the department head reviews the FOIL request and collects the information requested, the FOIL and response is sent back to the city clerk, who forwards it to the corporation counsel who reviews it based on the FOIL and the response then decides if the public has the right to know (and perhaps if it will help or hurt the mayor) then, if the corporation counsel deems the disclosure proper, it goes back to the city clerk who then contacts the citizen and charges him a fee, and once that’s paid, she releases the information – something like 87 days later – to the citizen.

(Note: Niagara Falls does act on FOIL requests in an expedited and legal manner sometimes for the Niagara Gazette and the Buffalo. This picking and choosing and delaying for those whose request might be politically disadvantageous, of course, is a violation of law since all citizens are equally entitled to and equal treatment from their government when they file FOIL requests.)

In any event, don’t expect Niagara Falls to launch an Open Book website or comply with FOIL requests. With an appointed controller who seems to understand that silence is golden, and with a desire seemingly to spend recklessly without being outed, Mayor Dyster has made Niagara Falls one of the least transparent cities in America.

Buffalo, on the other hand, with an elected comptroller, who is passionate about transparency, is fast becoming one of the most transparent cities in America.


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