Artvoice: Buffalo's #1 Newsweekly
Home Blogs Web Features Calendar Listings Artvoice TV Real Estate Classifieds Contact
Previous story: Niagara Tomorrow
Next story: Who's paying for the at-large incumbents' campaign for Buffalo School Board?

Buffalo Public Schools keep campaign finance information close to their chests

Assume the Position

At Tuesday night’s school board candidate forum staged by the Coalition for Economic Justice and held at True Bethel Baptist Church, incumbents Catherine Collins and Chris Jacobs answered at least one question with a lie. When every candidate was asked if they would make their campaign finance statements available to the public, Collins and Jacobs claimed they would, and that these files are in fact available, to everyone, right there in City Hall.

Recent incidents and conversations demonstrate that’s not the the case.

On Monday, I contacted Buffalo Schools Chief of Staff and District Clerk James Kane, requesting all campaign financial statements that have been filed so far. He said, “I imagine if you send in a FOIL [Freedom of Information Law] request, I can’t see any reason why we can’t send them out,” he said. I asked him where to direct the request. “801 City Hall,” he replied. I asked if I could just file the request by email, since we were then 15 days from the election. “Well yeah,” he said. “By the time the Freedom of Information officer looks at it…”

He stopped.

“What?” I asked.

“Well, it’s not going to get turned around tomorrow.”

I asked him why.

“Because they have so many days to look at it and send back the request,” he said. “It’s a big place.”

“What’s a big place?” I asked.

“Do you want to send in the request or not?” he snapped.

“Well, I’d like to know if I’m going to have access to the records before the election.”

“I have no idea,” he said. “It’s the first time I’ve had a request for that, so I’m gonna find out from our legal office if it’s all right to send these out.”

“Why wouldn’t it be?” I asked.

“I’m gonna find out,” he said.

I sent the FOIL request via email to both Kane and assistant legal counsel Kelly Gale Eisenried on Monday afternoon. AV editor Geoff Kelly followed up with an email a couple hours later, encouraging them not to use time frame loopholes in the FOIL process to delay disclosure until after the election. He sent them another short email reminder Wednesday morning, followed by a similar one Wednesday afternoon.

Finally, around 2pm Wednesday, we received a fax response from Kelly Eisenried. In it, she explained that she has “asked that the materials on file be tendered” to her, “so that they can be evaluated for release, redaction or exception under the provisions of the Freedom of Information Law.

“To further assist you,” she writes, “separately and distinctly from the Freedom of Information Law, you may wish to make an appointment with Mr. Kane to examine the records pursuant to Education Law 1529 (4) at the earliest mutually convenient time. That statutory provision does not provide for copying records, but if a visual review of the records would be of assistance to you, the District will be pleased to accommodate a request for an appointment, while your FOIL request remains pending.”

If only that had been the case for attorney Peter A. Reese, who visited room 801 in City Hall last Friday, with a desire to see these very same records. Reese was told that Kane was the only one who could provide access to the documents, and he was gone for the day. Reese left without seeing the information.

When he returned on Tuesday, he met with Kane. Again, he left without gaining access to the records. He also got a sore wrist when Kane grabbed him and wrenched his portable tape recorder from his hand, causing it to crash across the floor, batteries flying. Reese was trying to get Kane to speak on the record about his refusal of access to the financial reports.

A police report of the incident was filed at 6:30 Tuesday night at Precinct B.

Upon receiving the fax response from Eisenried on Wednesday afternoon, I gave her a call. I asked her if the delayed release of information is in keeping with the law, or is it a way of running out the clock until the school board elections are held in 12 days.

“I think it’s entirely in keeping with the law,” she explained. “You may disagree, but that is my position. I understand that you have a job to do, but so do I. And I need to make sure that I’ve had a chance to review the information.”

I asked her when she was going to fit that into her schedule. She laughed and said, “As soon as I possibly can.”

Erie County Board of Elections Commissioner Dennis Ward describes the way the Buffalo Public Schools hold the finance information while the Board of Elections runs the election and the petitions process as “a very strange anomaly in the law.” Asked if there is any reason to redact campaign finance reports in New York State, he said, “No. Absolutely none. I am unaware of anything in the campaign law about redactions. My question to them would be where do they find the authority to redact a public document?” He further described the act of asking for time to review and redact as “stonewalling.”

Ward said that public filing of campaign finance disclosure forms generally result in immediate public access to those records. “This whole section of the education law should be revamped,” he added.

Taking Eisenried’s advice, I called and left a message for Kane, requesting an appointment to view the records. As this issue was going to press Wednesday afternoon, he called back and we set up an appointment to meet Thursday at 11am in room 801.

If anyone would like to come with me, I’d appreciate the backup.

buck quigley

blog comments powered by Disqus