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Shouting Fireman in a Crowded Theater

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Buffalo Fiscal Stability Authority secretary George Arthur used part of Monday’s public meeting to express his ongoing concern that the Authority’s search for a new executive director is not being conducted in an open fashion. (See background story here.)

Clearly, there are members of the board who find Arthur’s concerns to be trivial. Among them, chairman of the board Paul Kolkmeyer and Alair Townsend, who form two thirds of the executive director search committee. The third member of that group, Rochester native Wade Norwood, was not present at Monday’s meeting.

Arthur contends, and Kolkmeyer confirms, that meetings of this three-person panel were often conducted via email and phone call. Townsend explained that her Manhattan residency made open meetings on the subject impractical. The question remains: Were they illegal?

In an effort to clear the air and get the entire board on the same page in regard to their responsibilities to the public, Arthur put forth a motion to invite Robert Freeman, a widely recognized authority on open meetings, to give the board advice on how they should conduct their business.

Kolkmeyer asked if anyone would second the motion, which provoked a long pause. It seemed as if the motion were about to be lost when Mayor Brown spoke up to second it. In the debate that followed, Townsend asked just who this Robert Freeman was, and if he were being retained by Arthur. When she was informed that he is in fact the head of the Committee on Open Government with the New York State Department of State in Albany, she fell silent.

Townsend served as New York City’s deputy mayor for Finance and Economic Development from 1985 to 1989 and as its budget director from 1981 to 1984, serving under Ed Koch. It is either totally astounding or completely understandable that such experience would have left her ignorant of the Committee on Open Government.

Once it was determined that a visit from Freeman would not require BFSA funds, that it was in fact part of his job, the motion was put to a vote. It passed with five “yes” votes, Kolkmeyer and Townsend abstaining. (Norwood and County Executive Chris Collins were not present.)

Hopefully, Albany’s input can repair the seeming lack of communication among the board members. And hopefully the public will gain more access to the business of the elite and undemocratic State-imposed entity that controls the city from a level above city hall.

Earlier, the board unanimously approved a pay raise for Buffalo firefighters—the first in seven years. The approval still hinges on Common Council authorization of specific city funds to back the raises, but control board member Mayor Byron Brown expressed optimism that city legislators will soon work out details and give their OK.

After the vote, board deputy treasurer Wayne Mertz offered the following observation to an audience of burly firemen: “It’s been my experience in negotiating labor contracts that the best increases are the ones that don’t come down by legislation.” It was a deadpan reference to the raise at hand—one that had only come about through 2005 arbitration. It had never been implemented due to a wage freeze that was imposed by and only recently lifted by the control board.

The room erupted in laughter. Someone shouted, “It’s the only way we get a raise!” Chairman of the board Kolkmeyer had to call for order, and the meeting was put on hold while the boisterous firemen filed out.