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Byron Brown is stonewalling

Buffalo News Editor Margaret Sullivan usually has a pretty long fuse - except, maybe, when she's got to deal with me. So when she goes off on someone, they usually have it coming - except for me, of course.

On Sunday, Madame Editor went off on Mayor Byron Brown, who, trust me, has it coming.

The cause of her ire is the Brown Administration's failure to adequately respond to numerous Freedom of Information requests filed by her reporters in recent months, including yours truly.

Says the boss:

The law is clear. When we request city records, you must provide them, completely and in a timely manner.

But you aren't exactly following the law at the moment.

You're stonewalling.

So, with all due respect, Mayor, cut it out.

And, with all due respect, Editor, you go, girl.

Things have reached a head with a Freedom of Information request I filed June 19. It's now August 9, and I'm still waiting for much of the information. And most of what I have received is either incomplete or provided in a format that makes it cumbersome, at best, to digest.

And I've been told by city attorneys that they won't provide much of the information until 70 business days have passed after my request. I did the math, and their projected release date would come just after the mayoral primary. 


I think not.

In fact, I know not.

My colleague, Sue Schulman, meanwhile, has been waiting even longer for records on city subsidized housing.  She's been waiting months and months for this information, but not as long as the  data  she requested on the city's animal shelter, which she's been waiting on since the calendar read 2008.

This from a mayor who claims he's all about transparency.

Yeah, right.

The stonewalling on releasing public records is part of a pattern.

Remember the brouhaha last summer when I reported the police department had started stripping crime reports of basic information, such as location of crime scenes, in retaliation for news coverage the brass objected to?

Or his "I know nothing" response to the hit-and-run antics of his son, before junior finally fessed up in the face of unrelenting news coverage?

It's just not reporters who get the runaround.

When the Common Council had questions about the block grant program, it had to resort to filing FOI requests with the administration and then - you guessed it - had to wait and wait for what turned out to be an incomplete response. To get the information it wanted - and was legally entitled to - the Council had to threaten to use its subpoena powers.

Talk to the folks at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and they'll tell you that when they went to review the city's block grant program, which is funded with federal dollars, they encountered a "it's none of your business and we're not telling you" attitude on the part of Brown Administration officials. 

And when the local HUD office released the audit - a scathing document that found wall-to-wall problems- Brown went screaming to housing officials in Washington trying to silence Steve Banko, who heads the local HUD operation. It worked. We haven't heard a peep out of the talkative Banko since.

Then there's the mayor's growing propensity to hide from the press.

Got a tough question? It's become Peter Cutler's job to answer them.

The best chance many reporters have of getting hizzoner to answer a question is to show up at his campaign appearances and shout out a question. Even then, you're more likely than not to get an evasive answer, often along the lines of "I didn't know that was happening," or "I won't comment on that because it's the subject of an ongoing investigation."

Think I'm kidding? Read this.

Many of his underlings are following the mayor's example. His staff at BERC won't return phone calls, much less answer questions, for the most part since the One Sunset expose and some damning follow ups. Ditto for some of Brown's commissioners, although, in their semi-defense, Deputy Mayor Steve Casey has brow beaten so many of them that I can understand why they are gun-shy about talking to the "enemy."

Again, at the end of the day, it's just not reporters who are getting frozen out.

I did a story last December on Brown's first two years in office based on a survey responded to by 150 civic, political and business leaders and their biggest beef was the mayor's lack of accessibility.

At the end of the day, Brown and his administration are the custodians, not owners, of public records. There are laws in place that govern their release that mayor after mayor, among many public officials, have learned to live by. It's past time this mayor did likewise.


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