The oversight body has not met over vacancies since Covid, making it a dead letter box for citizens’ grievances
Last September, 140 people signed a formal complaint that was filed with the Buffalo Ethics Council. The complaint alleged that city employees, including police officers, campaigned for Mayor Byron Brown during city times, using city resources.
Almost a year later, there was no response — not even an acknowledgment that the complaint had been received.
No wonder, as it turns out: the Ethics Council has not met for two and a half years.
According to the city clerk’s office, the ethics committee is tasked with overseeing compliance with the city’s regulations Code of Ethics – has not met since Covid struck, “due to lack of quorum”. The last Ethics Council meeting took place in February 2020.
A lack of quorum shut down the board throughout 2021 and has continued to do so well into 2022, according to Sharon Adler, legislative assistant to the city clerk. Adler is listed as the board’s public contact on his website.
The board of directors shall consist of seven members and shall meet monthly. Five members are appointed by the mayor in cooperation with a nominating committee and subject to the approval of the Common Council.
The other two are ex officio the city clerk and the corporate attorney – the city’s lead attorney.
Currently, the board has only three members, according to Adler: City Clerk Tianna Marks, Corporation Counsel Cavette Chambers, and attorney Meghan Brown, a partner at the law firm Goldberg Segalla.
Brown is the only appointed member currently in office.
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The Ethics Council annually collects financial disclosures from city officials to monitor potential conflicts of interest. It is also tasked with investigating allegations of ethical violations by city employees. The Board has the authority to subpoena testimony and documents when an investigation so requires.
If the board decides that a city employee has violated the city’s code of ethics, it can impose fines of up to $10,000 per violation and recommend that the employee be suspended or fired.
Appointment to the Ethics Council is made by a nominating committee composed of five members—one each appointed by the Mayor, the City Examiner, the President of the Common Council, the Chief Justice of the Buffalo City Court, and the Dean of the University at Buffalo Law School. whose deputy presides.
The nominating committee is to offer candidates to submit vacancies “no later than April 20.” town charter. The Mayor then sends the nominees to the Common Council for approval. Board members are appointed for five years.
Records show none of this happened in at least three years.
The website of the ethics committee has published a protocol for only two sessionsboth in 2019. At both meetings, attorney Douglas Coppola – then chairman of the board – indicated that he had approached the nominating committee to fill two vacancies.
Buried in Common Council records are the Minutes of the board meeting in January 2020, in which Coppola indicated that the board would soon need three new members. Longtime member James Magavern wanted to resign, although protocol says he has agreed to stay until his replacement is 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 been in service since 1999. In an email, Coppola told the Investigative Post he understood “City lacked resources to hold Zoom meetings” during Covid. Job offers made it difficult to get the quorum, he added.
“It would still be a challenge,” he wrote.
The loss of Coppola and Magavern has left the Ethics Council with only three members and unable to achieve a quorum.
That was “simply unacceptable,” said attorney Paul Wolf, President of the Federal Court of Justice New York Coalition for Open Government.
In 2019, the coalition — which tracks compliance with state assemblies and freedom of information laws — gave the Buffalo Ethics Council a bad mark (Zero out of five possible points) for transparency.
“There needs to be a fully functioning ethics board so that the public has a place for ethical issues to be raised,” Wolf told the Investigative Post via email. “City officials need to make this a priority and address it immediately by establishing a general assembly.”
Email inquiries to a spokesman for the mayor, the chief of staff to the council president and the dean of UB’s law school, who appoints the chair of the nominating committee, all went unanswered.
Adler, the city clerk’s legislative adviser, told the Investigative Post via email, “We’re working on it and waiting for that to come to fruition soon.”
Meghan Brown, currently the only appointed member of the Ethics Council, told the Investigative Post that she was “not authorized by the board” to respond to the Investigative Post’s inquiries. When asked if she was authorized to speak on behalf of the board — or who could authorize her or someone else to do so given the board’s quorum issues — she replied, “I’m sorry but I have no further comment.”
Attorney Stephanie Cole Adams filed an application last September Complaint with the Ethics Council regarding a Brown campaign television commercial featuring more than a dozen Buffalo police officers. The video’s text identified them as “real Buffalo cops.” Some wore clothing labeled “Police” or the department’s seal, according to the complaint.
The complaint expressed concern that the officers were not “acting as private individuals” but 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 and federal statutes, all of which govern the political activities of public officials.
Adams received no response from the ethics committee, which at this point had stopped meeting a year and a half earlier.
As first reported by Investigative Post Last week, the US Office of Special Counsel launched an investigation into possible Hatch Act violations by pro-Brown city employees.
The investigation stemmed from a citizen complaint filed with the federal regulator in June. According to the complainant, this complaint was based on the city’s ethics committee’s failure to respond to the allegations made last fall.