|Date:||April 2, 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 two sessions: A Caucus Meeting and a Regular Meeting. A Caucus Meeting is where members from a specific political party – in Buffalo's case, the Democratic Party – meet, but official voting on issues does not occur. A Regular Meeting is the Common Council's primary meeting, where the body makes official decisions on issues.
During the Caucus Meeting, the Common Council commented on the mayor’s Buffalo Police Reform Agenda to respond to the New York State Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative Resolution. Councilmember Rivera stated that the public had five days to comment and the administration made changes based on those comments. He also noted that some constituent ideas offered via public comment are not legally viable because of either local, state, or federal law – adding that some suggestions are not feasible due to current contracts. Another councilmember said there was a possibility of not receiving funds from the state of New York if the Council fails to send the report to New York State by April 1, 2021.
Council President Pridgen expressed his desire to have a two-way conversation between the commission and the public before calling a special meeting to approve the report. He noted that Common Council should allow the public to comment, regardless of the state funding deadline. One councilmember stated that the mayor and commission’s last-minute filing of the report “is a set-up,” because this report is one of the most meaningful council actions on police reform. Another councilmember stated that the Council should approve the resolution even if the body does not agree with everything in the agenda and amend it later. Council President Pridgen vowed to vote “no” without first hearing from the public on the resolution.
During the Regular Meeting, Common Council decided to consider providing an in vitro fertilization (IVF) benefit to City of Buffalo Employees through Governor Cuomo’s 2020 insurance law. The law requires large group health insurance policies to cover IVF prescriptions, provide continuous access to fertility preservation services, and prohibits age restrictions on IVF coverage. The Council took the issue under consideration following a BPD detective’s request letter featuring statewide research on IVF care, cost, and insurance coverage. Common Council expects to discuss this in the next Civil Service Meeting.
Councilmember Bollman sponsored a resolution directing the Department of Real Estate, Tax, and Law to consider ways of creating equitable in rem auction options for Buffalo residents. Bollman’s resolution also directs the office to research ways to limit in rem sales to owner-occupant purchasers on the first day and consider partnerships with grant and low-interest loan providers. One of PPG’s 2021 Community Agenda planks is to help our partners convince the City of Buffalo to promote local homeownership by changing the city in rem property auction. The term “in rem” simply means a court’s power over an item of real property. We will be following this issue very closely in the coming weeks, so stay tuned.
Common Council had a long conversation about the mayor’s Buffalo Police Reform Agenda (“the Agenda”). Mayor Brown appointed a “Commission to Recommend Police Policy and Advance Social Reconstruction” (“the Commission”) that drafted the report. Councilmember Rivera, a member of the Commission – in addition to Councilmember Nowakowski – sponsored the agenda resolution as a submission to the governor. This agenda allows the Council to comply with the governor’s New York State Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative Resolution. The agenda includes several BPD changes, including banning chokeholds, utilizing de-escalation techniques, and reinforcing policies like Cariol’s Law (Duty to Intervene).
Council President Pridgen stated the concern he shares is that the plan Common Council must send to the Governor’s Office cannot change after submission even though Buffalo can make local changes. The Council President also noted the public has not commented in a significant way on the agenda and that not even the councilmembers had enough time to research the document thoroughly. He stated that even if it is just a plan, it is still an important document.
A councilmember supporting the agenda pointed out that the recommendations are a living document that the Council can change in the future, and that the plan sent to the Governor is simply a non-binding plan that ensures Buffalo receives state funding. He also stated that Common Council can still hold a public hearing on the agenda after the body votes on it, and based on the Council may still change the document.
Council President Pridgen made clear that he took issue with the lack of transparency surrounding the agenda’s creation, which is why he will vote no. Pridgen quoted the timeline of a document drafted by the Governor’s Office described as “Developing Your Collaborative Plan” and a portion that states, “All localities will release their draft plans for public comment before completing this process.” The Council President said that part was supposed to happen between September October 2020, but it did not occur during that period. Pridgen also quoted where it says public comment and ratification should occur from January to March 2021, but it did not take place in that timeframe. The City of Buffalo gave the public less than five days to comment, between March 22 and March 26.
The City of Buffalo’s Chief Diversity Officer stated when each meeting took place: November 18, 2020; December 2, 2020; December 12, 2020; January 8, 2021; February 18, 2021; and the final meeting, March 29, 2021. The Chief Diversity Officer noted that the commission received information and research tools on the Buffalo Reform Agenda at the third meeting. Multiple Common Councilmembers stated they wished they had more time for public comment on the agenda but that receiving state funding was their primary consideration for submitting it to the Governor’s Office by the deadline.
One councilmember brought up how Buffalo residents requested a civilian review board, but the commission did not include that public recommendation which gives him no reason to believe that the City of Buffalo will take any further public commentary. The same councilmember made a motion to amend the plan to include the public’s recommendation of a civilian review board, but another blocked that motion. Councilmembers Feroleto, Bollman, Wyatt, Rivera, Nowakowski, and Council President Pridgen all voted no in a roll call to approve the agenda; we understood these no votes as signaling their desire for a public hearing on the resolution, which I will discuss below. All other members voted yes, with the Council choosing not to adopt the agenda by a 6-3 margin. The item appeared to fail; however, that was not the end of the story.
After the vote, an odd thing happened. Councilmember Rivera reversed his vote from no to yes, meaning the motion would still fail 5-4. After Rivera’s reversal, Councilmember Nowakowski also rescinded his vote. He expressed confusion over how the current vote would affect whether the Council could hold a public hearing on the resolution. He wanted to approve the document, but also wanted a public hearing to be held. Council President Pridgen outlined that if the resolution failed, they could hold a public hearing. If the resolution passed, they could not - as the item would be formally closed.
After clearing up this confusion, Council President Pridgen called for another vote on the item. Common Council would have to vote no if it wanted to discuss the issue in a special session on March 31 to allow for a public hearing. During this second roll call vote, Councilmember Feroleto also changed his vote to yes, and the motion passed 6-3 – a swing of three votes in a matter of twelve minutes. Councilmembers Pridgen, Wyatt, and Bollman maintained their no votes. Pridgen explained he does not have the authority to call a special council session without an agenda item to discuss.
According to the Common Council’s Approved Rules of Order for 2021, precisely, Rule 22, any member voting with the majority may move for a reconsideration. Though councilmembers stated they wished to change their vote, no council member made a motion for reconsideration, nor was the motion seconded. In Common Council’s Approved Rules of Order for 2021, specifically Rule 15, consideration for a point of order, point of inquiry, or point of clarification is immediate and ruled on at any point during the debate. No councilmember made raised any of those points during the discussion, yet some were confused about what their vote meant and whether a public hearing could be held.
In the final moments of the meeting, Councilmember Wyatt specifically asked the community to “show up in a big way” to the following legislation committee meeting on Tuesday, April 6, at 1 p.m. to speak on his proposed amendments to the Speed Zone Camera law. There are too many to mention here, but I will list three of the most significant amendments:
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