Mayor Byron Brown’s administration has long been hostile to requests for public documents from journalists.
In recent months, that hostility has grown worse.
Since this summer, the mayor’s law department and several of his commissioners have broken state law time and again in their responses — or failures to respond — to document requests by Investigative Post reporters.
Brown’s administration has failed to abide by the state Freedom of Information Law’s most basic requirements to respond to requests in a timely manner.
The city’s top attorney, Corporation Counsel Cavette Chambers, has refused to answer our reporters’ formal appeals when Brown’s department heads have ignored their requests.
And Brown’s commissioners have failed to produce documents even after acknowledging they are public and easily retrieved.
“Public trust begins and ends with transparency,” said Karim Abdulla, an attorney with the firm Finnerty Osterreicher & Abdulla, which specializes in media law. The firm has represented Investigative Post on numerous matters, including FOI requests.
“Lately, however, we’ve seen an uptick in city officials refusing to provide access to public records, leading not only to erosion of trust, but also causing the public to ask, ‘What are they trying to hide, and why?’ ”
Paul Wolf, president of the New York Coalition for Open Government, said he perceives “an established culture” in City Hall “to evade providing information to the public.” He said the mayor is ultimately responsible for that culture.
“The mayor can make it clear to the Corporation Counsel’s office and to all of his department heads that providing information to the public is a top priority, but he never has,” Wolf, an attorney, told Investigative Post.
“Instead we have public information officers who refuse to answer questions, commissioners who hang up on reporters, and employees who run and hide when they see reporters.”
Three case studies
Consider these examples:
Last month, Investigative Post requested the personnel file of Jill Repman, formerly known as Jill Parisi, an administrative assistant in the city’s Fire Department who has been on paid leave since she was suspended in 2016, at a cost of nearly $600,000 to taxpayers.
We directed the FOI request to Fire Commissioner William Renaldo, copying mayoral spokesperson Michael DeGeorge and Chambers, whose law department is generally involved in the city’s response to FOI requests. Investigative Post made the formal request after DeGeorge and Chambers said they would not answer questions about Repman’s employment status any other way.
Renaldo did not acknowledge receipt of the request within five business days, as required by state law. Neither did Chambers or DeGeorge.
Failure to acknowledge a request constitutes a denial under state law. So, on the sixth business day, Investigative Post filed an appeal to Chambers, asking her either to deny the request or direct Renaldo to produce Repman’s personnel file.
The law required Chambers to respond to that appeal within 10 business days, and to notify the state’s Committee on Open Government of her decision.
Ten days came and went, and she did neither. She still hasn’t.
A second example:
In June, an Investigative Post reporter requested copies of communications to and from numerous Brown administration officials pertaining to a proposed $563,000 aid package for Braymiller Market in downtown Buffalo.
The reporter did not receive an acknowledgement of the request, as required by law.
Nor did the reporter receive a response to the request — that is, either the documents or a denial — within 20 business days, as required by law.
After 42 days, the city’s Office of Strategic Planning told the reporter it would require “an additional twenty (30) business days [sic] for completion.”
Whether OSP meant 20 business days or 30, they’d pushed their anticipated response to four months after the request, when state law allows for just one month. So, on Sept. 12, the reporter filed an appeal to Chambers, arguing that the city’s delays and failures to abide by state law amounted to a denial of the request.
And again Chambers broke state law by failing to respond to the appeal within 10 business days.
After 12 business days, the reporter reminded Chambers her decision was overdue. She did not respond to that reminder, either.
A third example:
In August, an Investigative Post reporter asked the Buffalo Police Department to provide a record of every FOI request it had received in electronic format between Jan. 1, 2022, and June 1, 2023.
The reporter also requested copies of the responses the department had provided in electronic formats. The reporter noted that such electronic records should be easily retrieved and require no redaction, since they’d already been made public in response to settled FOI requests.
This one began promisingly: The next day, the department acknowledged receipt of the request and asked for clarification, which the reporter provided.
A few days later, the reporter further clarified what he was looking for in a phone conversation with Lt. Joseph Szafranski of the department’s Special Projects office. Szafranski told the reporter there were about 850 such records.
The reporter heard nothing for a week, so he sent Szafranski a reminder. A week later Szafranski replied that he would “check into the request and let you know the status of it” and apologized for the delay.
Our reporter has heard nothing since.
On Sept. 14, the reporter filed an appeal to Chambers, the mayor’s top attorney, detailing his efforts to obtain the records and his correspondence with Szafaranski.
And once again, Chambers failed to respond to that appeal within 10 business days, as required by law.
Investigative Post is represented on FOI matters by Finnerty Osterreicher & Abdulla and the Civil Rights & Transparency Clinic at the University at Buffalo School of Law. We are conferring with our attorneys to determine how to respond to the Brown administration’s stonewalling.
It’s not just journalists
Wolf, the attorney who heads the New York Coalition for Open Government, has butted heads with the Brown administration over Freedom of Information requests, too.
Back in July, Wolf filed a request for a copy of the mayor’s meeting calendar “from January 1, 2023 until today’s date.”
Wolf wanted to determine if the mayor had met in that period with the Common Council president and the city comptroller to make appointments to the Citizens Salary Review Commission.
Those three elected officials comprise the city’s “Board of Review,” and the city charter says only the Board of Review can appoint the members of that commission.
Earlier this year, however, the Common Council appointed members to the commission, which then quickly recommended raises for elected officials.
Wolf argues that the proposed salary increases would be illegal if the way the commissioners were appointed violates the city charter. He has urged Council members — in testimony to the Council’s Legislation Committee and via correspondence as recently as last week — not to adopt the proposed pay raises without first determining if the commission was properly empaneled.
Thus, his FOI request.
Wolf said his request was acknowledged within five business days, but that was the first and only legal requirement the city met.
“I have not received any other communication since,” he told Investigative Post.
After 43 business days had passed — more than twice what state law permits — Wolf prodded Brown’s law department to tell him the status of his request. The law department did not reply. Last Monday, he filed an appeal to Chambers, asking her to determine whether the refusal of her department to respond to his request is a violation of state law.
Chambers has until next Monday to rule on his appeal. Meanwhile, the Council passed the pay raises into law on Tuesday by a vote of seven to two. The two dissenters were North District Council Member Joseph Golombek and South District Council Member Christopher Scanlon.
Wolf called the Brown administration’s failures “a disservice” to the public’s right to know how and why city officials make decisions.
“The Freedom of Information Law is an important law that is not difficult to follow,” he said. “Yet time after time the City of Buffalo has not complied with the law.”
Neither Chambers nor DeGeorge, the mayor’s spokesperson, responded to a request for comment for this story.