Belatedly, City Hall has an ethics board
The city’s ethics board has been resurrected from the dead.
Investigative Post reported last month that the ethics board hadn’t met in two and half years because the mayor and Common Council had failed to appoint enough board members to comprise a quorum.
Last week, Mayor Byron Brown submitted five nominees for the ethics board to the Common Council for approval. All five were approved Tuesday without debate or discussion, bringing the ethics board to its charter-prescribed membership of seven.
Before Tuesday, it had just three members — one short of a quorum.
The five newly appointed members are:
- John R. Torrey, an assistant professor at SUNY Buffalo State specializing in African-American and social and political philosophy. In 2020, Torrey served on a panel the mayor formed to study and recommend police reforms, in response to that summer’s demonstrations against police misconduct.
- Mary Ruth Kapsiak, who served three terms on the Buffalo Board of Education, including two stints as board president. Kapsiak was teacher and administrator for Buffalo Public Schools, retiring in 2006, the year before she was first elected to the board.
- David L. Edmunds, an attorney whose legal career began with Neighborhood Legal Services in 1978. Edmunds spent 15 years working for the state Attorney General, a decade as a deputy commissioner for the State Liquor Authority, and in 2020 filled a vacancy as a Buffalo City Court judge for four months. He was also a partner for eight years in the firm Damon Morey, now Barclay Damon, and special counsel with Phillips Lytle.
- Elizabeth A. Bruce, a private practice attorney currently employed by New York Central Mutual Insurance.
- John P. Gerken, Jr., who has been with the Erie County District Attorney’s office for 15 years, minus two years spent as an assistant counsel for the state Assembly.
Gerken, Bruce, Edmunds and Kapsiak have all made donations in the past to Brown’s campaign committee, as well as to other Democratic candidates for elected office.
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Gerken is the most prolific donor of the four, according to state campaign finance records. He has donated more than $35,000 to Democrats over the past decade, including $750 to Brown. Bruce gave the least — less than $500 over the past decade, including $100 to Brown. State records show no political donations by Torrey.
The five new appointees join two ex officio members — that is, people who serve on the board because of the office they hold. They are City Clerk Tianna Marks and Corporation Counsel Cavette Chambers.
Members of the panel serve five-year terms without compensation, but the new appointees are all stepping in to finish terms cut short due to resignation or, in one case, death.
Kapsiak, for example, was appointed to fulfill attorney Meghan Brown’s term, which runs until 2024. Before this week’s appointments, Brown was the only appointed member left on the board.
A partner at the law firm Goldberg Segalla, Brown declined to comment last month on the board’s failure to meet since the beginning of the COVID pandemic in March 2020. On Wednesday she told Investigative Post she resigned to focus on “increased responsibilities here at my firm.”
Per the city charter, the ethics board is charged with investigating violations of the city’s code of ethics and monitoring potential conflicts of interest for city employees, including elected officials. It has the power to subpoena documents and testimony, though there is no record of it having used that authority.
The panel collects disclosure forms elected officials and certain city administrators are required to file, per the city’s ethics code. These include annual financial disclosures, as well as reports detailing travel expenses, gifts worth more than $100, and any business dealings with people or companies that have city contracts.
For example, here’s the latest financial disclosure filing from the mayor:
The filing reveals that the mayor owns two properties, and that his wife is employed by Erie County Surrogate’s Court as an adoption investigator and the Buffalo Public Schools as a research aide. The mayor reports that he received no gifts worth more than $100 in 2021, and that neither he nor any close family member had any interest in or dealings with companies that have city contracts.
The latest filing by Common Council President Darius Pridgen notes his wife works for the state courts system, and that he has an interest in properties owned by his parents and his daughter-in-law. Likewise, Pridgen reports no substantial gifts and no interest in city contracts:
Per the charter, the ethics board is required to meet once a month. When asked, the city clerk’s office declined to provide a date for the next meeting, saying only that there would be “a public announcement for the media.”
When the revitalized board convenes, the first order of business will be to approve the minutes of the last meeting, held in February 2020.
Among the backlog of agenda items accumulated since then is a complaint filed with the ethics board last September, alleging a Brown campaign advertisement featuring Buffalo police officers violated the city’s ethics code, as well as state and federal laws governing the political activities of public employees.
The complaint was never acknowledged, let alone investigated, because the ethics board could not meet. The U.S. Office of Special Counsel launched an investigation into a similar complaint this summer.