|Date:||January 29, 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, Common Council held five committee meetings; our attention will focus on the Finance Committee Meeting, the Community Development Committee Meeting, the Legislation Meeting, and the Police Oversight Meeting. The Finance Committee concerns all matters about the budget and issuance of bonds. The Community Development Committee focuses on matters pertaining to work or improvement using revenue from another government unit. The Legislation Committee examines all matters relating to local laws, ordinances, and general legislation, except for civil service matters. The Police Oversight Committee analyzes all matters dealing with the Buffalo Police.
During the Finance Committee Meeting, the Council met with Shatorah Donavan, the City of Buffalo's Diversity Officer, about the Beverly Gray Business Exchange Center and Community Development Properties, Buffalo, Inc. ("CDPB"). Some Common Council Members seemed to be wary about whether Council Members may ethically serve on boards that receive funding from the city. (Council Member Wingo serves on one such board.) Council Member Wyatt asked questions about the operations of the Beverly Gray Business Center, and how city funds are being spent. He does not want the City of Buffalo to spend any funds without an absolute need during the pandemic.
During the Community Development Meeting, Council President Pridgen spoke about supporting a historical marker for President Lincoln's funeral in honor of George K. Arthur, but agreed to delay the issue in favor of allowing more city workers to work on snow removal. Common Council also heard from William Underwood (MD, MSC, MPH), a 20-year surgeon and American Medical Association Board Trustee, on supporting a resolution stating racism is a public health threat. Dr. Underwood quoted multiple studies showing how racism is a social determinant of health that causes various societal issues. Racism increases chronic disease and mortality from those same diseases, resulting in approximately 86,000 deaths a year in the Buffalo-Niagara region. Dr. Underwood also stated that those same social determinants of health also cause rises in costs to Medicaid, Medicare, and private insurance. He quoted a study from the Robert Wood Jr. Foundation that revealed our area lost $3.6 billion a year from the increased cost. Dr. Rita Hubbard-Robinson cosigned the information Dr. Underwood presented. Council Member Wyatt said that a resolution is forthcoming stating that racism is a public health threat.
During the Legislation Meeting, Common Council heard from local attorney Peter Reese about the ongoing issues with the Buffalo School Zone Safety Program's enforcement hours. Mr. Reese stated the traffic court hearing officer is acting as the prosecutor, which is unethical, because he might have a bias to win the City of Buffalo’s case. He also listed specific problems from a recent case he acted on as the defense. During the case, which involved an improperly issued ticket, Mr. Reese states that the hearing officer did not provide evidence to prove his case as the prosecution would typically have to do. However, he provided evidence for the record that the judicial proceeding did not meet the standards of a hearing. Mr. Reese is considering bringing a class-action lawsuit against the city. Buffalo News recently published a story titled "Lawyer questions dual roles of prosecutors, judges in city's traffic court," which details the entire prosecutor versus adjudication issue.
The Council noted it asked both the prosecutor in question and the Parking Commissioner to attend the meeting, and both failed to appear. Council Members Wyatt and Pridgen both commented about how they have already asked the mayor's administration to pause the program. Council Member Feroleto stated a letter sent to him from the adjudicator in question explicitly calls himself a "prosecutor."
In an odd exchange, Council Member Wyatt asked Assistant Corporation Counsel about using subpoena power to order the recording of the hearing be sent to the Common Council. Assistant Corporation Counsel did not answer the question and instead suggested that the Common Council FOIL the information. I found the response alarming as the Buffalo Charter explicitly gives the Common Council power to issue a subpoena and force the document to be sent to them. Mr. Reese stated the same sentiment, but Assistant Corporation Counsel again mentioned requesting the information instead of using the subpoena power. Council Member Rivera then stated he had no interest in requesting information but wanted to use the subpoena power of the Council. Council President Pridgen then read the City Charter out loud to the Assistant Corporation Counsel, citing where it states the Common Council has subpoena power. He then said the Council should request one more time and then subpoena if there is no response.
During the meeting, Council Members Bollman and Nowakowski also requested approval for the legislation they co-wrote, which amends Ordinance Chapter 309 Hazardous Operation of Motor Vehicle in Park, adding increased punishments for illegal ATV use. Both Captain Rinaldo – speaking on behalf of the Buffalo Police Department – and Council Member Feroleto supported the legislation. Council President Pridgen ended the meeting speaking about a large problem of not receiving requested information from other departments. Council staff will soon make a bulk request for the information that other departments have failed to provide.
During the Police Oversight Committee Meeting, Common Council met with the Buffalo Police and heard from the Buffalo Police Advisory Board. Council Members Wyatt and Rivera directly asked the BPD to make sure that specific unwritten policies are written down – including any changes – so that Council may view them and ensure police are abiding by those policies. The Buffalo Police Advisory Board ("PAB") then spoke – announcing five new members, moving two senior members to emeritus status – before giving recommendations on issues the community has raised. The PAB has previously presented all of these recommendations, except for the first listed, but has seen little progress through Police Oversight Meetings. The recommendations were: 1) the BolaWrap pilot program should make all data available to the public concerning use of the new weapon, 2) the City of Buffalo should invest in 9-1-1 diversion and also remove police from mental health response, 3) Common Council should create a civilian review board for the police, which has appointment and subpoena powers, 4) Common Council should grant the PAB subpoena powers to serve its mission more effectively. The Board also requested more help from the Common Council, in obtaining information requested from the police and in setting meetings with police leadership to discuss these issues and recommendations.
In responding to the PAB, Buffalo Police Captain Rinaldo stated, "BolaWrap is not a weapon. It is a restraint device." However, the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms ("ATF") classifies it as a non-lethal weapon. Though Wrap Technologies, creator of the BolaWrap, considers the object a restraint device, its use of a .380 partial charge blank round contains gunpowder. Police did, however, agree to share data, but did not provide details. BPD stated it would do so when the program begins, which should be soon.
Multiple organizations supported the PAB recommendations at the meeting, adding their questions and concerns. One major issue for speakers was the BPD failing to respond promptly to Freedom of Information Law ("FOIL") requests for information. BPD responded that there were 970 FOIL requests, and some of them are very work-intensive as they must redact personal information. BPD also said it has reduced capacity to fulfill the information requests due to the pandemic.
One important policy reversal was announced during the meeting: BPD officers will no longer be allowed to wear only a badge number on their uniforms and overcoats, instead of their name badge. In September 2020, it was announced that BPD officers could wear only a number--leading to pushback from many groups including the Minority Bar Association of Western New York. This week, following questioning on the subject by Council Member Rivera, BPD Commissioner Lockwood announced the reversal of the no-name policy. One aspect will remain--BPD officers will be permitted to remove their name badges (which will now be attached with velcro) when assigned to cover protests or "civil unrest."
During the Police Oversight Committee Meeting, the Common Council seemed to be restricting registered speakers' ability to speak, including the co-chairs of the PAB. Due to this, most of the public's questions went unanswered, with the BPD and Council providing little new information in this quarterly meeting.
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