City ethics board out of business
Last September, 140 people signed a formal complaint filed with Buffalo’s Board of Ethics. The complaint alleged 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 acknowledgement the complaint was received.
Little wonder, as it turns out: The ethics board hasn’t met in two and half years.
According to the Office of the City Clerk, the ethics board — charged with monitoring compliance with the city’s code of ethics — hasn’t met since Covid struck, “due to lack of quorum.” The last ethics board meeting took place in February 2020.
Lack of quorum shut down the board all through 2021 and has continued to do so thus far into 2022, according to Sharon Adler, legislative assistant to the city clerk. Adler is listed as the board’s public contact on its website.
The board is supposed to have seven members and meet monthly. Five members are appointed by the mayor, in collaboration with a nominating committee and subject to approval by the Common Council.
The other two, ex officio, are the city clerk and the corporation counsel — the city’s lead attorney.
Right now the board has just three members, according to Adler: City Clerk Tianna Marks, Corporation Counsel Cavette Chambers, and attorney Meghan Brown, a partner at the firm Goldberg Segalla.
Brown is the only appointed member currently serving.
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The ethics board collects annual financial disclosures from city officials in order to monitor possible conflicts of interest. It is also charged with investigating allegations of ethical breaches by city employees. The board has the power to subpoena testimony and documents, if an investigation demands it.
If the board judges a city employee has violated the city’s code of ethics, it can levy fines up to $10,000 per violation and recommend the employee be suspended or fired.
Appointments to the ethics board originate with a nominating committee, comprising five members — one each appointed by the mayor, the city comptroller, the Common Council president, the chief judge of Buffalo City Court, and the dean of the University at Buffalo Law School, whose appointee serves as chair.
The nominating committee is supposed to offer candidates to fill vacancies “no later than the 20th day of January each year and no later than 30 days after the creation of any midterm vacancy,” according to the city charter. The mayor then sends nominees to the Common Council for approval. Board members are appointed to five-year terms.
Records indicate none of that has happened in at least three years.
The ethics board’s web page has posted minutes for only two meetings, both in 2019. At both meetings, attorney Douglas Coppola — then the board chair — indicated he’d reached out to the nominating committee to fill two vacant seats.
Buried in Common Council records are the minutes of the board’s January 2020 meeting, in which Coppola indicated the board would soon need three new members. Long-time member James Magavern wanted to step down, though the minutes indicate he agreed to stay until his replacement was found.
Magavern was never replaced. He passed away 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’d served since 1999. In an email, Coppola told Investigative Post he understood “the city lacked resources to have Zoom meetings” during Covid. Vacancies made achieving quorum difficult, he added.
“It still would be a challenge,” he wrote.
The loss of Coppola and Magavern has left the ethics board with just three members, unable to reach a quorum.
That’s “simply unacceptable,” according to attorney Paul Wolf, president of the New York Coalition for Open Government.
In 2019, the coalition — which tracks compliance with the state’s open meetings and freedom of information laws — gave Buffalo’s ethics board a failing grade (zero out of a possible five points) for transparency.
“There needs to be a fully functioning Ethics Board so that the public has a place to bring ethical issues,” Wolf told Investigative Post via email. “City officials need to make this issue a priority and immediately address this by getting a full board established.”
Email inquiries to a spokesman for the mayor, the chief of staff for the Council president, and the dean of UB’s law school, who appoints the chair of the nominating committee, all went unanswered.
Adler, the legislative aide for the city clerk, told Investigative Post via email, “We are working on this and are waiting for this to come into fruition soon.”
Meghan Brown, currently the ethics board’s only appointed member, told Investigative Post she had “not been authorized by the Board” to respond to Investigative Post’s inquiries. When asked who was authorized to speak for the board — or who might authorize her or anyone else to do so, given the board’s quorum problems — she replied, “I’m sorry, but I have no further comment.”
Last September, attorney Stephanie Cole Adams filed a complaint with the ethics board regarding a Brown campaign TV commercial featuring more than a dozen Buffalo police officers. The video’s text identified them as “real Buffalo police officers.” Some were wearing clothing bearing 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 leveraging their authority as police officers “to solicit support and donations for a partisan candidate for office.”
According to the complaint, these constituted violations of the city’s code of ethics, as well as state law and the federal Hatch Act, all of which regulate the political activities of public employees.
Adams received no response from the ethics board — which, at that point, had ceased meeting a year and a half earlier.
As first reported by Investigative Post last week, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel has opened an investigation into possible Hatch Act violations by city employees campaigning for Brown.
The investigation arose from a citizen complaint filed with the federal watchdog agency in June. That complaint was motivated by the failure of the city’s ethics board to respond to the allegations made last fall, according to the complainant.