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This morning’s Buffalo News ran a story about accusations from former common council president George Arthur, who is now secretary of the Buffalo Fiscal Stability Authority (BFSA), commonly known as the control board. The News article describes Arthur’s claims that the search for a new executive director of the board has been conducted in a way that violates the open meetings law. Arthur sent a request for opinion to Robert Freeman at the New York State Department of State Committee on Open Government in Albany, dated March 19.

Here’s more to the story. Board chair Paul J. Kolkmeyer appointed a three-person committee to conduct a search for a new executive director on November 7, 2007. At the time of the appointments and again at a public control board meeting in January, Arthur strongly voiced his concern that the selection process for a new executive director of the Authority was not being conducted in an open manner. As secretary of the board, Arthur demanded insight into the selection process to better insure that a broad sample of qualified candidates would be considered for the top staff position at BFSA. The chosen candidate will be the person in charge of the day-to-day operation of the entity and will collect a six-figure salary for doing so.

On January 16, Arthur put his requests for information from Kolkmeyer in a letter to him. “I need this information so that I can, in good conscience fully comply with my legal obligations as a member of the BFSA,” he wrote. Arthur’s point being that as a director of an entity like the control board, he should have access to all the information that entity produces. Without it, how can he do his job?

Still, he was not given access to the meetings of the three-person search committee that consists of Manhattanite Alair Townsend (Publishing Director for Crain’s New York Business), Rochester native Wade Norwood (Director of Safety Net Initiatives, Finger Lakes Health Systems Agency), and Lockport resident Kolkmeyer himself (former President and CEO of First Niagara Bank and First Niagara Financial Group).

The News tried to reach Kolkmeyer three times for comment without success, but here’s what he told Artvoice last Friday, where we interrupted him on a Florida vacation to speak with us on the issue.
“I talked to George just recently. I know he’s upset with something. I’m not sure why he’s so upset. The board put together a committee to do the search and he seems to feel he should have been included. He was not asked to be on the committee, and it’s almost like sour grapes as far as I’m concerned. The board’s still doing its work on it and hopefully we’ll come to a recommendation shortly and we’ll go from there.”

Kolkmeyer claims he’s had constant contact with other board members. “So it’s not like everybody’s totally out of the loop. The last conversation with George, he said he didn’t even want to talk about it. So I said, ‘that’s fine.’”

But as secretary of the control board, Arthur argues he is responsible for keeping the minutes of committee meetings of the executive search committee. How can he do so if he isn’t notified and invited to attend them?

“(Arthur) wants to be included on everything and that’s not the way boards typically work. Now if a board of an authority like this works differently, then I’m not privy to that information just yet.” Kolkmeyer said. “I’ve been on dozens of boards in the past, and none of those boards worked the way George is telling us this board has to work. So this is kind of a new experience for me.”

In fact, Arthur’s request for inclusion in the meetings of the executive director search committee would have been impossible due to the fact that, according to Kolkmeyer, there were no meetings.

“Everything was conducted via email, via phone conversation, there might have been one conference call. So what he is referring to is beyond me, right now. There were no open meetings. And according to my understanding of the open meeting rules…laws…is that there needs to be an open meeting any time more than four of our board members get together. Well we only had three (on the executive search committee). We conducted our meetings via phone calls and email.”

Speaking to Arthur’s point, his lawyer, Peter A. Reese says, “The idea that a director of a corporate body can’t have access to the information of the corporate body is madness.”

While Arthur awaits a response from the Committee on Open Government, Kolkmeyer has turned the matter over to BFSA counsel at Harris Beach.

Adding to the overall confusion is the fact that these emails and phone calls among the three-person search committee failed to produce viable job candidates as of February 14—three months after the committee was formed. On that day an email was sent out to all board members informing them that two of the finalists for the job had withdrawn their names from consideration. A board meeting scheduled for February 18 that was meant to introduce the final three to the full board had to be canceled since the crop of candidates had narrowed to one individual.

By February 19, Kolkmeyer sent out an email to all board members stating “I continue to be very concerned about the confidentiality of this process and I am even more concerned today than I was over the last several months because of the names which appeared in the newspaper as we were finalizing the last round of interviews…if you have any suggestions or thoughts on the process please give me a call.”

Because the BFSA is a public entity imposed by Albany representing another layer of governmental bureaucracy on top of what is already in place in the city, and because the control board costs the city $1.5 million annually to operate, the least it can do for the taxpayers it serves is to grant full access of information to all the individuals who have been named by the State as directors to conduct the board’s business.

  • Jay Burney

    When the mob says “we want government run like a business” we get, well, government run like a business. Unfortunately, there is not much there, there that provides public benefit. Besides attacks on worker benefits, reductions in valuable services, and concentrations of power, you get this, secrecy. The private sector for the most part wants to conduct its business behind the curtain so that it can spring its “products” on an uninformed and often uninvolved public. Public input is considered “messy” and “inefficient”. When you get these wall streeters involved in managing government, the public’s interest is sacrificed to private sector influences.

    George K. Arthur has been around the public’s business long enough to know better and he is a real hero for doing what he is doing. Imagine a public official retaining his own lawyer at his own expense to go against this stacked machine! Imagine a public official demanding sunshine and accountability in an important decision making process. Thank you George and I hope that some of our other elected officials, including that guy in the Mayor’s office pay public attention to this issue. Buffalo is a better place because of George Arthur.