Contact: Axel Ebermann – PR Chair
In October of 2023, the Buffalo Common Council passed a local law, which the Mayor approved to raise the salaries of the Mayor, Councilmembers, City Comptroller and School Board members.
The New York Coalition For Open Government filed a lawsuit calling the rush for government officials to raise their own pay a story of arrogance and greed. We pointed out in our legal papers that violations of Common Council meeting rules, the City Charter and the Open Meetings Law occurred.
A key issue in this case is whether the Board of Review consisting of the Mayor, City Comptroller and Council President is subject to the NY State Open Meetings Law. It is our position that a three-member board established by the City Charter consisting of three elected officials is subject to the Open Meetings Law. Appointments to the Citizens Salary Review Commission, a key part of the process must be done by the Board of Review. The Board of Review by the City’s own admission never held a public meeting; never provided notice to the public of their meeting; never posted meeting documents or meeting minutes online, regarding their appointments to the Salary Review Commission. All of which are violations of the Open Meetings Law.
The City of Buffalo has responded to our lawsuit calling our claims “inherently baseless”. The responding papers by the City contain affidavits filed by Mayor Byron Brown, City Comptroller Barbara Miller Williams and former Council President Darius Pridgen, stating the Board of Review met and conducted public business by telephone. The City is making the incredible argument that the Open Meetings Law does not apply to the Mayor, City Comptroller and Council President conducting business as the Board of Review, as the Board is not a public body.
Another key issue is whether the Citizens Salary Review Commission is a public body subject to the Open Meetings Law. Our position is that under the Open Meetings Law a body that performs a necessary governmental function is subject to the law. The City Charter requires the Commission to make a recommendation to the Council by a specific date, which the Council must act on. Without a report from the Commission a pay raise cannot occur. As a public body the Commission did not comply with the Open Meetings Law in that they provided remote access for their meetings to government officials but not to the public and they held an illegal executive session to discuss providing pay raises for government officials. There is no basis under the Open Meetings Law for discussing elected official salaries in private behind closed doors away from the public.
The City’s position is that the Salary Review Commission is not a public body and is therefore not subject to the Open Meetings Law.
Before we get to arguing the merits of our case, the first question that needs to be answered is whether Erie County Supreme Court Justice Craig Hannah is going to hear this case or recuse himself from doing so?
Justice Hannah has a long history with Mayor Byron Brown. Hannah worked on Byron Brown’s State Senate staff and was appointed by Mayor Brown to the Buffalo City Court bench in 2006. In 2019, Mayor Brown appointed Judge Hannah to be the Chief Judge of Buffalo City Court. In 2022, while running for Erie County Supreme Court Judge Hannah personally contributed several hundred dollars to Mayor Brown’s Mayoral campaign and he personally contributed to the campaigns of two City Councilmembers. As this lawsuit addresses whether the Mayor and City Councilmembers will receive a pay raise it is a fair question as to whether Justice Hannah should hear and decide this case.
Paul is the founder of the NY Coalition For Open Government and has truly loved seeing it become what it is today and is excited about its future growth.
As an attorney for 32 years, he is a partner in the law firm of Berzer & Wolf. Prior to his private law practice, Paul served in several government positions with the Buffalo Common Council, Buffalo Housing Authority, and Erie County.
When he is not practicing law and doing open government stuff, Paul enjoys spending time with his spouse, Cheryl, and his three children, Michael, Joseph, and Julia. Paul resides in Amherst, NY, a suburb of Buffalo.