|Date:||April 23, 2021|
By Orlando Dickson |
Each week, PPG summarizes important takeaways from the major Buffalo Common Council meetings. We also include information from Council meetings related to our Community Agenda items.
This week, the Common Council held five committee meetings. For this summary, we will focus on three: the Legislation Committee, the Police Oversight Committee, and the Community Development Committee. The Legislation Committee addresses local laws, ordinances, and general legislation, except for civil service matters. The Community Development Committee focuses on issues about work or improvement using revenue from another government unit. The Police Oversight meeting concerns all issues dealing with the Buffalo Police Department.
During the Legislation Meeting, Councilmember Wyatt thanked the over 500 community members who submitted comments to Common Council to remove the school speed zone cameras. He also explicitly thanked our partners at the Buffalo Fair Fines and Fees Coalition for joining the meeting, including Mr. Peter Rizzo, who created a full presentation supporting removing the speed cameras.
Councilmembers Golombek and Wingo stated they still had questions about removing speed cameras and restated their reasons for voting against their removal. Corporation Counsel Rashied McDuffie said City lawyers are reviewing the legal requirements for the legislation requiring removing the speed cameras. One councilmember wanted to discuss the speed zone camera issue more, but the Council continued the meeting instead of engaging in discussion about legislation it already passed.
The Council stated it is still waiting – a year later – for the City of Buffalo’s lawyers to deliver their legal review of installing a citizen review board. In May 2020, the resolution asked Corporation Counsel to research costs and establish the board's legal requirements. The Council expects the Buffalo Citizens Review Board to hold hearings, conduct independent investigations, review complaints, and recommend police misconduct actions.
Common Council discussed creating an emergency stabilization fund for Buffalo. An emergency stabilization fund allows Buffalo to set aside surplus revenue for use during unexpected deficits. Councilmembers Bollman, Nowakowski, Rivera, and Wyatt are sponsoring the legislation. Councilmembers Bollman and Nowakowski explained that this process should be a "slow build," and they do not mean to respond to a doomsday scenario. They also stated they intend to work together with all councilmembers and Mayor Brown’s administration to ensure they are comfortable with the legislation. Councilmember Rivera and Council President Pridgen thanked auditors and the City Comptroller Office for helping the Council draft the legislation.
There is no effective date as Common Council is still in early development with the legislation, but the earliest it will set aside the emergency fund balance is next fiscal year. The Deputy Comptroller stated the expectation to set aside around $76 million, but fiscal responsibility during the process is a must. He also said that we currently have $38 million in a rainy-day fund.
During the Community Development Meeting, the Council stated that Compass House rescinded its request to use 308 Highgate as a youth homeless shelter. Dozens of Highgate community residents spoke out against the installation of the homeless shelter stating it would be the fourth group home in a one-mile radius. The residents also said Compass house did not seek community input and refused to meet with residents concerning the project, which they felt was disrespectful. Councilmember Wyatt stated that Compass House does excellent work, and he will work to help them engage in discussion with community members in other areas to find an appropriate location. Wyatt also spoke generally about his responsibility to the residents and not developers. He will not support installing properties in a neighborhood when the developer has not negotiated with residents.
The Council heard a short presentation from Greenlight Networks, which hopes to deploy low-cost fiber internet to homes in the Buffalo-Niagara region. Representatives spoke specifically about their Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, which provides discounts during the Covid-19 pandemic. About 4,600 Buffalo residents have signed up for Greenlight, and the Council expects to hear more from Greenlight in the coming weeks.
Common Council heard a short presentation from PPG Partner Sierra Club Niagara Group on its four-year project with the NFTA to electrify buses. John Stith provided the update, stating the NFTA ordered ten electric buses and will transform its Cold Springs Garage on Michigan Avenue to an electric charging facility. Stith asked the Council to electrify Buffalo’s municipal fleets – including garbage trucks, snowplows, firetrucks, police cars, and other vehicles. Mr. Stith stated the City should take on the slow process of electrifying the fleet soon because it could take up to 20 years to complete. Councilmember Golombek and Council President Pridgen both stated they would resolve to ask the City to electrify their fleet.
Councilmembers Bollman and Nowakowski updated the Council on giving Buffalo residents first access to auctions for real estate property. Both Councilmembers stated they are awaiting a meeting date with the Department of Real Estate, Tax, and Law and the Commissioner of Tax and Assessment.
During the Police Oversight Meeting, the Council allowed the Police Advisory Board (PAB) to speak for ten minutes. A friend of PPG, Danielle Johnson, said about meeting with Buffalo Police Department (BPD) Leadership. Commissioner Lockwood, Deputy Commissioner Lark, and Deputy Commissioner Gramaglia attended the meeting. The PAB stated it had a productive conversation about the PAB recommendations the board made in the past year. The PAB said it would have a follow-up meeting on June 21, 2021.
The PAB has new leadership. Community organizer and activist Michael Powell will chair the PAB and has big shoes to fill from previous co-chairs Erin Carmen and Danielle Johnson. The new chair shared his comments with the Council as well. In his remarks, Michael spoke about PAB’s suggestion that BPD installs a diversion model to replace the co-responder model for reacting to mental health calls. He also reminded the Common Council about other PAB recommendations, such as collecting information on the use of BolaWrap, and making use of force rules for police more stringent and more explicit.
Councilmember Wyatt cited his disappointment that Mayor Brown's Buffalo Police reform agenda process did not include any input directly from the PAB. Commissioner Lockwood agreed the PAB meeting was productive. Commissioner Lockwood stated he is open to hearing about civilian review boards. Additionally, BPD and City lawyers are currently working on a memorandum of agreement to start the LEAD program.
Behavioral Health Team Coordinator Captain Amber Beyer noted BPD is testing a diversion model for mental health response. Captain Beyer mentioned that "a lot of calls" are kicked back from the mental health crisis hotline to the BPD – and why the crisis hotline wanted police involved. Captain Beyer maintains the crisis hotline wanted police to respond to calls with a violence component or when lights and sirens were necessary to get to the call in an emergency.
Captain Beyer revealed that the only time BPD uses BolaWrap is when verbal de-escalation methods fail and that only the Behavioral Health Team has BolaWrap devices. The captain also stated BPD has only used the BolaWrap two times and will provide data on its continued use at the next Police Oversight Meeting. Council President Pridgen said he had seen two separate occasions where police officers pulled away from incidents they have responded to and allowed social services to respond to mental health calls. Pridgen also briefly discussed increasing the budget for the eight-member Behavioral Health Team to allow for 24-hour operation, and Captain Beyer said more hours for the team would help. Hopefully, any budget increase for that team comes from funds already allocated to BPD, because the police budget alone accounts for nearly 30% of the entire city budget for Buffalo. Councilmember Wyatt explicitly stated he wants BPD to use reallocated resources instead of new resources.
One thing Captain Beyer stated, which I want to point out, is, "A lot of these mental health professionals, including Crisis Services, do not want to respond to some of these calls without police." Captain Beyer did not provide data supporting this comment. In September 2020, over 150 Buffalo social workers and mental health professionals penned a letter to Mayor Brown and Common Council specifically asking to ban police from responding to mental health calls. You can read the full letter here.
Captain Rinaldo announced that BPD received an abundance of the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) record requests. The capacity of requests is overwhelming its ability to respond in a timely fashion. City Attorney Rashied McDuffie added that the laws about FOIL requests require BPD to respond within five days. However, a foil request "may be reviewed up to twenty days, or even longer" during the pandemic. McDuffie also says that the response within five days is typically to say that the City received the request, and it will act diligently to put together the documents. Rinaldo added that they try to give accurate timetables of how long it will take BPD to respond to FOIL requests.
The New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) filed a lawsuit against BPD charging unlawful denial of the FOIL requests for disciplinary records; use of force; stops; civilian complaints; policies; investigative reports; diversity; training; and collective bargaining agreements. Commissioner Lockwood stated that at the time of this meeting, there is no evidence that any Buffalo police officer attended the Capitol Riots that took place on January 6.
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