By: Brian Nowak
On January 11th, 2018, the town of Amherst Committee on Open Government met for their first meeting of the year. The Committee is relatively unique among the various committees and boards, with the Village of Williamsville being the only other municipality in Erie County with an open government committee. The Amherst Committee was inspired by what was accomplished in the village of Williamsville.
In 2014, an Amherst local law was passed requiring the creation of the open government advisory committee. The seven member committee was created and went to work. In January of 2016, then-Town Supervisor Barry Weinstein attempted to eliminate the Open Government Advisory Board. Not only did his efforts fail, the committee was increased to 10 members and enshrined into local law in October of 2016.
The Amherst Town Board has been filming all town board meetings and the filming of various other town committees, including their open government committee, these activities are relatively unique among towns in Western New York. Most other towns, along with the cities of Buffalo, Lackawanna, and Tonawanda, do not go as far as the town of Amherst to make the inner-workings of local government as accessible to their tax payers.
The Open Government Committee discussed various matters at the meeting, but took up no significant business because they did not have enough members to establish a quorum. Amherst planning board meetings are not video recorded and the open government committee discussed their interest in seeing that happen.
What was discussed was a desire to have the town supervisor file their calendar with the town clerk in the event residents were interested to review and learn more about who their elected officials were meeting with. The newly-elected Amherst supervisor Brian Kulpa was in attendance and expressed his willingness to support the plan. Kulpa was even willing to sponsor the resolution himself and intends on doing so when it comes before the Amherst Town Council.
The Open Government committee also discussed what are known as ‘consent agendas.’ Committee member Paul Wolf’s concern was centered on a variety of resolution items being approved at the beginning of a meeting all at once. This blanket approval would result in the remaining agenda items being read out of order, making it more difficult for the public to follow along and make sense of the conduct of the meeting. Wolf asked this writer if consent agendas were used in the town of Cheektowaga (just south of Amherst), to which this writer said they are not.
The committee’s progress in 2017 has made Amherst government more open and transparent. The Open Government Committee took up the video taping of planning board pre-meetings, access to zoning board meeting agendas, access to traffic safety agendas, and held a candidate forum open to the public and video-taped for all residents. The committee is making progress on all of these issues, despite resistance from members of the boards in question.
One item on the Open Committee agenda that led to success was their interest in a confidential legal settlement by the Town Board. A resolution on the June 8th, 2017 Open Government Advisory Board meeting agenda was set to address the lack of disclosure in a settlement between Zaepfel Development and the Town of Amherst. Before the June 8th meeting, the Buffalo News reported on the terms of the settlement after the Town Attorney released the settlement terms.
The Open Government Committee in the town of Amherst is relatively new, but it has been a trailblazer in Western New York. Even if their success so far has been limited, the work they do will serve as a great example for residents and political leaders in other communities seeking to establish more open and transparent government.