Oversight committee hasn’t met since pre-Covid due to vacancies, making it a dead letter office for citizen complaints
Last September, 140 people signed a formal complaint filed with the Buffalo Board of Ethics. The complaint alleged that city workers, including police officers, were campaigning for Mayor Byron Brown on city time, using city resources.
Almost a year later, there has been no response, not even an acknowledgment of the complaint.
No wonder, as it turns out: the ethics board hasn’t met in two and a half years.
According to the Office of the Secretary of the City Council, the board of ethics, in charge of supervising compliance with municipal regulations ethical code – has not met since Covid hit, “due to lack of quorum”. The last meeting of the ethics board took place in February 2020.
The lack of a quorum shut down the board throughout 2021 and has continued to do so through 2022, according to Sharon Adler, legislative assistant for the city clerk. Adler is listed as the board’s public contact web site.
The board must have seven members and will meet monthly. Five members are appointed by the mayor, in collaboration with a nomination committee and with the approval of the Common Council.
The other two, ex officio, are the city clerk and the corporation attorney, the city’s principal attorney.
Right now, the board has just three members, according to Adler: City Clerk Tianna Marks, corporation attorney Cavette Chambers and attorney Meghan Brown, a partner at the Goldberg Segalla firm.
Brown is the only appointed member currently serving.
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The ethics board collects annual financial communications from city officials in order to monitor potential conflicts of interest. It is also responsible for investigating allegations of ethical violations by city employees. The board has the power to subpoena witnesses and documents, if an investigation requires it.
If the board finds that a city employee has violated the city’s code of ethics, it can impose fines of up to $10,000 per violation and recommend that the employee be suspended or fired.
Appointments to the ethics board originate with a nominating committee, made up of five members, one appointed each by the mayor, the city comptroller, the president of the Common Council, the chief judge of the court of the city of Buffalo and the dean of the University at Buffalo Law School. the designated person acts as chairman.
The nominating committee must offer candidates to fill the vacancies “no later than January 20 of each year and no later than 30 days after the creation of any mid-term vacancy,” according to the city charter. The mayor then sends the candidates to the Common Council for approval. The members of the Board are appointed for periods of five years.
Records show that nothing like this has happened in at least three years.
The website of the ethics committee has published minutes for only two meetingsboth in 2019. At both meetings, then-board president attorney Douglas Coppola indicated he had contacted the nominating committee to fill two vacant seats.
Buried in the records of the Common Council are the minutes of the January 2020 board meeting, in which Coppola indicated that the board would soon need three new members. Long-serving member James Magavern wanted to quit, although the minutes show he agreed to stay on until his replacement was found.
Magavern was never replaced. He died in March at the age of 89. His seat remains vacant.
Coppola left the board a year ago, when he moved from the city to Williamsville. He had served since 1999. In an email, Coppola told the Investigative Post that he understood “the city did not have the resources to have Zoom meetings” during the Covid. Vacancies made it difficult to reach a quorum, he added.
“It would still be a challenge,” he wrote.
The loss of Coppola and Magavern has left the ethics council with only three members, unable to reach a quorum.
This is “simply unacceptable”, according to lawyer Paul Wolf, president of the New York Coalition for Open Government.
In 2019, the coalition, which monitors compliance with the state’s open meetings and freedom of information laws, gave Buffalo’s ethics board a negative rating (zero out of five possible points) for transparency.
“There needs to be a fully functioning Ethics Board so the public has a place to bring up ethical issues,” Wolf told the Investigative Post via email. “City officials need to make this issue a priority and address it immediately by setting up a full board.”
E-mail inquiries to a spokesperson for the mayor, the chief of staff of the president of the Council and the dean of the Faculty of Law of the UB, who appoints the president of the candidacy commission, went unanswered.
Adler, the city clerk’s legislative assistant, told the Investigative Post via email, “We are working on this and we hope to have this out soon.”
Meghan Brown, currently the only member appointed by the ethics board, told Investigative Post that she “had not been authorized by the Board” to respond to Investigative Post’s inquiries. When asked for authorization to speak on behalf of the board, or who could authorize her or anyone else to do so given the board’s quorum issues, she replied: “I’m sorry, but I don’t have more comments.”
Last September, attorney Stephanie Cole Adams filed a complaint with the ethics board about a Brown campaign television ad featuring more than a dozen Buffalo police officers. The text of the video identified them as “real police officers from Buffalo.” Some wore clothing with the word “police” or the department’s seal, according to the complaint.
The complaint expressed concern that the officers were not “acting as private citizens” but were using their authority as police officers “to solicit support and donations for a partisan candidate for office.”
According to the complaint, those were violations of the city’s ethics code, as well as state law and the federal Hatch Act, which regulate the political activities of public employees.
Adams did not receive a response from the ethics board, which, by then, had stopped meeting a year and a half earlier.
How the Investigative Post first reported Last week, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel opened an investigation into possible violations of the Hatch Act by city employees campaigning for Brown.
The investigation stemmed from a citizen complaint filed with the federal watchdog agency in June. That complaint was prompted by the city’s ethics board’s failure to respond to allegations made last fall, according to the complainant.