on December 6, 2013 - 12:01 AM
, updated December 6, 2013 at 1:03 AM
When municipalities insist on flouting the law by refusing to turn over public information, or by holding illegally closed meetings, they are obstructing the public’s rights. They are, flat-out, undemocratic.
West Seneca is the latest to disrespect the public by categorically refusing to turn over basic police blotter records regarding Robert J. Styn Jr., who was charged with driving while intoxicated after a Nov. 27 crash on Indian Church Road. The crash killed West Seneca Democratic Chairman Daniel S. McParlane.
Town police and court officials have refused to release public documents connected with Styn’s arrest. Officials offer vague explanations that sound marginally official on prime-time cop shows, such as “ongoing investigation.” But The News, which has had to grapple with authorities over information that, by right, should be available to the entire public, has been forced to point out basic law. The paper’s effort has been supported at the state level.
The West Seneca Court Clerk’s Office finally said that it would provide the documents after The News threatened legal action and the State Office of Court Administration intervened and explained that the documents are public records. Coincidentally, the Court Clerk’s Office closed minutes after The News filed a written document seeking the case file and the paper did not receive the records as promised Wednesday. The Buffalo News ultimately got the records, but from the state, not West Seneca.
Talk about walking a fine legal line. As Robert J. Freeman noted, the police blotter or its equivalent should be routinely disclosed. Freeman is the executive director of the state’s Committee on Open Government. Actions by West Seneca officials on such basic information have to rank as textbook obstructionist behavior. They are violating at least the spirit of the law.
The News has been diligent in attempting to get the information since shortly after the 12:10 a.m. crash. Reporters visited Town Hall several times. Still, police released only a four-sentence news release late Nov. 27, announcing that Styn was arrested on a DWI charge, that the crash involving McParlane occurred on Indian Church Road and that weather conditions may have been a factor.
Further News reporting offered that McParlane, 33, was also an Erie County sheriff’s deputy assigned to the Holding Center and that he had attended a meeting of the Democratic Town Chairs Association earlier in the evening in Curly’s Restaurant, Lackawanna, and then met with Democratic Legislator-elect Patrick B. Burke in a South Buffalo pub before the crash occurred.
Thanks to town officials who refuse to provide records, a lot has been left to the imagination, and if comments on The News’ website are any indication, speculation has run rampant. One would think that town officials would want to clear up as much as possible, which can easily be done without jeopardizing the investigation. And without blatantly gaming the law.
Police Chief Daniel M. Denz, also unavailable when reporters tried reaching him by telephone – twice – was quick to tell a reporter the next day that the crash “remains under investigation” and to submit a Freedom of Information request to the town attorney, which could take up to 10 days for a response. In other words, go pound salt.
West Seneca town officials just don’t get it. In this democracy, public records are available to the public. It’s not a hard concept. And as Freeman said, “We don’t have secret arrests in this country.” Do we?