Oversight committee has not met since before Covid due to vacancies making it a dead letter office for citizen complaints
Last September, 140 people signed a formal complaint filed with the Buffalo Ethics Board. The complaint alleged that city employees, 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 acknowledgment of the complaint.
No wonder, in the end: the ethics committee has not met for two and a half years.
According to the City Clerk’s Office, the ethics committee — responsible for overseeing compliance with code of ethics – hasn’t met since Covid hit, ‘due to a lack of quorum’. The last meeting of the ethics committee took place in February 2020.
Lack of quorum shut down council throughout 2021 and continued to do so through 2022, according to Sharon Adler, legislative assistant to the city clerk. Adler is listed as the council’s public contact on his website.
The council is supposed to consist of seven members and meet monthly. Five members are appointed by the mayor, in consultation with a nominating committee and subject to the approval of the municipal council.
The other two, ex officio, are the town clerk and the company attorney – the senior town attorney.
Currently, the board has just three members, according to Adler: City Clerk Tianna Marks, firm attorney Cavette Chambers and attorney Meghan Brown, a partner at Goldberg Segalla.
Brown is the only appointed member currently in office.
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The Ethics Committee collects annual financial statements from city officials to monitor potential conflicts of interest. He is also responsible for investigating allegations of ethical breaches by city employees. The board has the power to subpoena evidence and documents, if an investigation so requires.
If the board finds that a city employee has violated the city’s code of ethics, it can levy fines of up to $10,000 per violation and recommend the employee’s suspension or dismissal.
Appointments to the Ethics Committee come from a Nominating Committee, made up of five members – one each appointed by the Mayor, City Comptroller, Common Council President, Chief Justice of the Buffalo Court and Dean of the University of Buffalo Law School, whose appointee serves as chair.
The nominating committee is supposed to offer candidates to fill vacancies “no later than January 20 of each year and no later than 30 days after any mid-term vacancy is created,” according to the city charter. The mayor then sends the candidates to the municipal council for approval. Board members are appointed for a five-year term.
Records indicate that none of this has happened for at least three years.
The Ethics Committee web page has posted minutes for only two meetingsboth in 2019. At both meetings, attorney Douglas Coppola – then chairman of the board – said he had contacted the nominating committee to fill two vacant seats.
Buried in the archives of the common council are the January 2020 board meeting minutes, in which Coppola indicated that the board would soon need three new members. Longtime member James Magavern wanted to quit, although the minutes show he agreed to stay on until a replacement was found.
Magavern was never replaced. He died 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 had served since 1999. In an email, Coppola told the Investigative Post that he understood “the city lacked the resources to run Zoom meetings” during Covid. Vacancies made it difficult to achieve quorum, he added.
“It would always be a challenge,” he wrote.
The loss of Coppola and Magavern left the ethics committee with just three members, unable to reach a quorum.
This is “simply unacceptable”, according to lawyer Paul Wolf, president of the New York Coalition for Open Government.
In 2019, the coalition — which monitors compliance with state open meetings and freedom of information laws — gave Buffalo’s ethics committee a failing grade (zero out of five possible points) for more transparency.
“There needs to be a fully functioning ethics committee so the public has a place to bring ethical questions,” Wolf told Investigative Post via email. “City officials need to make this a priority and address it immediately by implementing a full board.”
Email inquiries to a spokesperson for the mayor, the chief of staff to the president of the council, and the dean of UB law school, who appoints the chair of the nominating committee, all went unanswered.
Adler, the legislative assistant to the city clerk, told the Investigative Post via email, “We are working on it and expecting it to happen soon.”
Meghan Brown, currently the only named member of the ethics committee, told Investigative Post that she was “not cleared by the board” to respond to inquiries from Investigative Post. When asked if she was authorized to speak on behalf of the board — or who might authorize her or anyone else to do so, given board quorum issues — she replied, “I’m sorry, but I have no further comment.”
Last September, attorney Stephanie Cole Adams filed a complaint with the ethics committee regarding a Brown campaign television ad featuring more than a dozen Buffalo police officers. The text of the video identified them as “real Buffalo police officers”. Some wore clothing bearing the word “police” or the department’s seal, according to the complaint.
The complaint expressed concerns that the police officers were not “acting as private citizens”, but were using their authority as police officers “to solicit support and donations for a partisan candidate for office”.
According to the complaint, these were violations of the city’s code of ethics, as well as state law and federal Hatch law, which regulate all political activities by public employees.
Adams received no response from the ethics committee – which, by then, had stopped meeting a year and a half earlier.
As first reported by Investigative Post Last week, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel opened an investigation into possible violations of the Hatch Act by city workers campaigning for Brown.
The investigation follows a citizen complaint filed with the federal oversight agency in June. This complaint was motivated by the fact that the city’s ethics committee had not responded to the allegations made last fall, according to the complainant.