Executives and commissioners of the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority apparently violated open-government laws when they went into a closed-door session Thursday, apparently to discuss the recent controversy over public relations services.
According to one official, commissioners wanted an opportunity to speak with BMHA Executive Director Dawn E. Sanders-Garrett about the hiring of a local public relations firm that had been paid at last $102,361 since 2011 to do work that ranged from crisis management to routine communications services like writing and editing news leases. It’s the kind of work other upstate housing authorities handle in-house.
Later Thursday afternoon, Sanders-Garrett said she was not even in the closed meeting.
Still, commissioners deemed the reason for going into the executive session was a “personnel matter” without specifying the nature of the matter. The state’s Open Meetings Law allows such sessions to discuss the “medical, financial, credit or employment history of a particular person or corporation or matters leading to the appointment, employment, promotion, demotion, discipline, suspension, dismissal or removal of a particular person or corporation,” but mandates that the reason be spelled out.
Simply stating “personnel matters” is not a legal basis for going behind closed doors, said Robert J. Freeman, executive director of the state Committee on Open Government.
“I don’t see any of those qualifiers” in BMHA’s reasoning for the executive session, he said.
Sanders-Garrett said maybe the reasoning was “categorized wrong.”
Other BMHA officials were not available Thursday to respond after the closed session.
Controversy over the public relations work has centered around Eric Mower & Associates, which the authority hired without soliciting competing proposals. The firm charged rates to the housing agency that ranged from $325 an hour for work done by a senior partner to $125 an hour for tasks performed by junior associates.
The no-bid contract with EMA did not come before the board of commissioners for a vote because Sanders-Garrett had the authority to hire the PR firm using funds designated for professional services. BMHA officials said they thought the contract amount was $25,000 a year.
Earlier this month, the BMHA sent out a request for proposals for services such as media relations, communications skills training, communications support and crisis management. The bids are due back Monday.
But EMA will not be among the firms seeking the contract. Managing Partner Greg Loh said earlier this month the company would not be responding to the request for proposals because “we were concerned we can’t help our client right now.”