The City Board of Ethics is out of business

The oversight panel has not met since pre-Covid due to vacancies, making it an office for citizens’ complaints

Last September, 140 people signed a formal complaint filed with the Buffalo Board of Ethics. The complaint alleges that city workers, including police officers, campaigned for Mayor Byron Brown on city time using city resources.

Almost a year later, there is no response — not even an acknowledgment of the complaint.

No wonder, as it turns out: The ethics board hasn’t met in two and a half years.

According to the city clerk’s office, the board of ethics — charged with overseeing compliance with city policies Code of ethics — hasn’t met since Covid hit “due to lack of quorum”. The last ethics board meeting was held in February 2020.

The lack of a quorum shut down the board throughout 2021 and continues to do so through 2022, according to Sharon Adler, legislative assistant to the city clerk. Adler is listed as the public contact on the board of his website.

The board must have seven members and meet monthly. Five members are appointed by the mayor in cooperation with a nominating committee and are subject to approval by the Common Council.

The other two, ex officio, are the city clerk and the corporation counsel — the city’s chief attorney.

The board currently has just three members, according to Adler: City Clerk Tiana Marks, Corporation Counsel Cavette Chambers and attorney Megan Brown, a partner at the firm Goldberg Segalla.

Brown is the only appointed member currently serving.

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The ethics board collects annual financial disclosures from city officials to monitor potential conflicts of interest. He is also charged with investigating allegations of ethical misconduct by city employees. The board has the power to subpoena testimony and documents if the investigation requires it.

If the board determines that a city employee has violated the city’s code of ethics, it can impose fines of up to $10,000 for each violation and recommend that the employee be suspended or fired.

Appointments to the Board of Ethics are made by a nominating committee consisting of five members—one each appointed by the Mayor, the City Comptroller, the President of the Common Council, the Chief Judge of the Buffalo City Court, and the Dean of the University at Buffalo School of Law, whose appointed serves as chairman.

The nominating committee is supposed to propose candidates to fill open positions “not later than the 20th day of January each year and not later than 30 days after the creation of any midterm vacancy,” according to city ​​charter. The Mayor then sends applications to the Common Council for approval. Board members are appointed for a term of five years.

Records show that none of this has happened in at least three years.

There is a published protocol on the website of the Ethics Committee only two meetingsboth in 2019. At both meetings, attorney Douglas Coppola — then the board’s chairman — indicated he had approached the nominating committee to fill two vacancies.

They are buried in the minutes of the General Council minutes of the board meeting in January 2020, in which Coppola indicated that the board would soon need three new members. Longtime member James Magovern wanted to step down, although minutes show he agreed to stay on until a replacement is found.

Magavern was never replaced. He died in March at the age of 89. His place remains vacant.

Coppola left the board a year ago when he moved from the city to Williamsville. He has served since 1999. In an email, Coppola told the Investigative Post that he understood “the city did not have the resources to hold Zoom meetings” during Covid. The vacancies made it difficult to achieve a quorum, he added.

“It would still be a challenge,” he wrote.

The loss of Coppola and Magaverne left the ethics board with just three members, unable to reach a quorum.

This is “simply unacceptable,” according to attorney Paul Wolf, president of the New York Coalition for Open Government.

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In 2019, the coalition that monitors compliance with the state’s open meetings and freedom of information laws gave the Buffalo Board of Ethics a failing grade (zero out of a possible five points) for transparency.

There should be a fully functioning ethics board so the public has a place to raise ethical issues,” Wolff told the Investigative Post via email. “City officials should make this a priority and address it immediately by creating a full board.”

Email inquiries to a spokesman for the mayor, the chief of staff to the Council president and the dean of the UB Law School, who chairs the nominating committee, went unanswered.

Adler, the city clerk’s legislative assistant, told the Investigative Post via email, “We are working on it and we expect it to come to fruition soon.”

Megan Brown, currently the only appointed member of the ethics board, 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 anyone else to do so, given the board’s quorum issues — she said, “I’m sorry, but I have no further comment.”

Last September, attorney Stephanie Cole Adams filed complaint with the ethics board regarding a Brown campaign television ad featuring more than a dozen Buffalo police officers. The text of the video identifies them as “real Buffalo police.” Some wore clothing emblazoned with “police” or the department’s seal, according to the complaint.

The complaint expressed concern that the officers were not “acting as private citizens” but instead used their authority as police officers “to solicit support and donations for a partisan candidate for office.”

According to the complaint, that is a violation of the city’s ethics code, as well as state law and the federal Hatch Act, all of which regulate the political activities of public officials.

Adams did not hear back from the ethics board — which had by then stopped meeting a year and a half earlier.

Like first reported by Investigative Post last week, the US Special Counsel’s Office opened an investigation into possible violations of the Hatch Act by city officials campaigning for Brown.

The investigation stemmed from a citizen complaint filed with the federal watchdog agency in June. This complaint is motivated by the failure of the city’s Board of Ethics to respond to allegations made last fall, according to the complainant.

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