It is intolerable, unacceptable and outrageous that it took six months and legal action from The Buffalo News before both the Buffalo School District and the Town of Hamburg reluctantly handed over documents in separate cases involving taxpayer money.
Top officials in both the school system and town kept a death grip on information that should have been immediately available to the public. Those officials directly violated the state’s Freedom of Information Law, apparently believing themselves to be members of a secret society entitled to use taxpayer money without oversight.
The fact that town and school officials tried to hide information related to the competence and financial stewardship of high-level administrators is unconscionable.
The News took the school district case to State Supreme Court, and the documents finally revealed were nothing short of amazing.
In Sunday’s News, education reporter Mary Pasciak detailed the events surrounding the firing of Debbie Buckley. In less than a year and a half running the district’s grants department, Buckley directed more than $330,000 of anti-poverty money to benefit people and businesses close to her, including her son, her former stepsister and a struggling tutoring business that she had founded with her mother. An investigator’s 34-page report, with four pages of information redacted, along with 434 pages of related documents, all unredacted, were finally provided to The News.
The public had a right to know the circumstances surrounding Buckley’s firing, especially whether there was any mismanagement of public money. As usual, the attempt to cover up embarrassing information makes it seem worse than it would have been if the documents had been released when Buckley was fired.
Town of Hamburg officials took their own liberties with the Freedom of Information Law. The case involved a secret, expensive retirement agreement with the town’s controversial assistant police chief, Stephen E. Mikac.
As chronicled by staff reporter Barbara O’Brien, the settlement involved a tangled case dating back to 2011 involving sexual harassment charges made by Mikac against a town councilwoman, and counter-allegations by the town that Mikac violated policies involving a female police recruit.
Mikac retired last year with an extra $45,500 and a higher pension, along with a letter of reprimand. He dropped his claims against the town.
O’Brien’s article contains an account of the case along with documents involved. The retirement contract is a public record, a point made by Robert Freeman, executive director of the state’s Committee on Open Government, who wrote an advisory opinion stating that the settlement should be released.
The News filed a Freedom of Information Law request, which the town initially denied. The News appealed that denial and the agreement was released only after Joseph M. Finnerty, attorney for The News, met with Town Attorney Kenneth Farrell in recent weeks.
Public bodies have an obligation to operate in as open a manner as possible. A few exceptions are allowed, and the Committee on Open Government exists to advise governments and the public on the issue. Ignoring the committee’s guidelines is a slap at the public’s right to know, made worse because taxpayers have to pay for efforts to keep themselves in the dark.