Some years ago, I was working on a story that involved gathering municipal payrolls. When I called Toni Cudney, the Orchard Park town supervisor at the time, and told her I wanted the previous year's gross pay for every town employee, she bristled.
Well, Cudney had come from a career in the private sector, so maybe her reaction was somewhat understandable -- the fact that everything from overtime to mileage records are open to scrutiny when you're a public employee came as something of a culture shock to her. (Needless to say, after she had been educated a bit, Cudney provided the information I was looking for.)
Over the years, as I've requested various public records from local governments and school districts, I've encountered a handful of responses -- including Cudney's -- so interesting that they stand out in my memory.
But never before has a public official suggested to me that certain information was not public one day, but probably would be a week or so down the road.
That's essentially what Jim Kane, Buffalo Superintendent James A. Williams' chief of staff, told me yesterday when I asked for the names of the people who had submitted resumes to be considered for the East District seat on the Board of Education. He refused to give me the names. Why? Well, the deadline for applications isn't until noon Friday, he said, and besides that, he had not yet shared the names with the board.
I had already checked with Bob Freeman, executive director of the state's Committee on Open Government, who confirmed that yes, the names of those candidates are public. They became public once they were submitted to the board office. I relayed that information to Kane.
"I'm not sure they are public," Kane said. "I'm doing due diligence. That's what I'm doing."
He wouldn't elaborate what that "due diligence" was, but repeated several times that he was doing it. I pointed out that there's plenty of public information that's released without the board seeing it. There's absolutely nothing in the Freedom of Information Law that says public records can only be made public after they've first been reviewed by a board. Kane didn't care.
For those who do care what the law has to say:
The state's Freedom of Information Law protects the names of applicants for public jobs, but that does not apply in this situation, Freeman said.
"This is not public employment. This is a vacancy in elective office," he said.
And in this case, because candidates must be residents of the East District to be eligible for the seat, their home addresses also are a matter of public record, Freeman said.
Board President Ralph R. Hernandez said was frustrated by Kane's refusal to release the names, which he said was typical of the administration's tendency toward "secretive" behavior regarding public matters.
"In my opinion, it's a very simple exercise. A board member has resigned. We have the opportunity and the obligation to fill that position. It is our obligation -- the board's -- not the administration's, not Dr. Williams', and not Jim Kane's. It is our job," Hernandez said.
As frustrated as Hernandez was, Kane still withheld the names. In case you haven't already seen the story, I was able to pin down six of the seven candidates' names and talk to most of them.
Looking ahead a bit: The board has about a month to decide who will fill the East District seat. Freeman noted that case law indicates that when it comes time for the board to wrangle over who's the best candidate, those deliberations should be held in public. (Here's the link to an advisory opinion from Freeman explaining that in more detail.)
Stay tuned for more coverage of the board's selection process, as well as additional information about the candidates and the issues that are important to them.
- Mary Pasciak