Buffalo Common Council Summary: Week of November 2, 2020

Buffalo Common Council Summary: Week of November 2, 2020

Date: November 2, 2020

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 four meetings, but our attention will focus on three: The Finance Committee meeting, Legislation Committee meeting, and a Community Development Committee meeting. The Finance Committee concerns all matters about the budget and issuance of bonds. The Legislation Committee focuses on local laws, ordinances, and general legislation, except for civil service matters. The Community Development Committee oversees all matters relating to work – or improvement –  using revenue from another government unit.

During the Finance Committee meeting, Common Council discussed Mayor Brown’s Smart City Initiative to create a data analytics system for Buffalo Police via a $1.3 million, three-year contract with SAS Institute. SAS claims its center only does "predictive analysis" to determine best practices, not to be confused with "predictive policing” that uses artificial intelligence algorithms (and real-time data) to guess where crime might happen to direct police operations. Recent studies on these AI algorithms have consistently produced information containing racial bias.

Rob Mayer, Mayor Brown’s Director of Policy – who supports the contract – claims predictive analysis differs as it is about "how you alter those data points that are going to appear in the evaluation to improve results." If that quote sounds confusing, you're not alone. None of the Common Council members seem to understand the specific purpose and use for the program. In fact, the need for more information is precisely why the Finance Committee decided to table the issue until there is a full presentation on the outcomes, and how the program measures them.

Common Council also showed massive favor for the approval of a $200,000 a year contract with AXON for the purchase of 85 Tasers and unlimited Taser cartridges for the Buffalo Police Department (BPD). Council approved the necessary funding last year, and BPD returned with contract details to make the actual purchase of the Tasers. Councilmember Wyatt requested the purchase of more Tasers than BPD suggested, out of concern that some officers won't have them and will use more lethal force. Council President Pridgen stated that his constituents want de-escalation prioritized and a less lethal option than firearms for "bad actors" who are not struggling with substance abuse or mental health concerns.

A report, published by the U.S. Department of Justice, assessing the effectiveness of “less lethal weapons,” highlights ineffective Taser deployment – almost 25 percent of the time, collectively – based on data from participating police agencies. In addition, Black people are killed at disproportionate rates after police incidents involving tasers, with law enforcement accused of using the weapon unethically. PPG and our partners ask for the City of Buffalo to invest more in community and preventative, harm reduction measures instead of more weapons for BPD.

In our final Finance Committee meeting note, Wyatt shared his concerns about a salary increase for the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority (BMHA) Executive Director Gillian D. Brown. Wyatt believes that, in order for the director to qualify for a raise, BMHA needs to show that those who receive services from the public housing agency are benefitting from the director's administration. The University District Councilmember also stated BMHA needs to establish metrics for an annual raise based on resident quality of life prior to approval.  In response, BMHA Chairman David Rodriguez noted the agency will provide metrics and data for the raise. BMHA Commissioner Renato Graham spoke about the lack of promised communication between the executive director and himself, as well as a lack of resident interaction with the executive director, noting COVID as a reason for holding off on the raise until the necessary metrics are made available to Common Council. The Council sent the raise without a recommendation for a vote and will approve if the metrics pan out.

During the Legislation Committee meeting, the traffic commissioner brought data to Common Council's attention collected from nine traffic speed cameras, split between five different school districts. This data concerns Mayor Brown's veto of the Common Council's effort to limit the use of cameras to before and after school hours – with the City of Buffalo programming speed cameras to turn on during the entire school day. Between January and February, Buffalo sent about 43,000 warning notices to people who violated the speed limit during the preliminary warning period. The warning period created 84 percent compliance by the final week, and roughly 90 percent of speeding citations for persons driving between 26 and 35 mph in a 15mph zone. Only 52 percent of the people cited are Buffalo residents.

After the warning period, people who violated the speed limit in school zones received a $50 fine in the mail, but these tickets do not add points to their licenses for the violation. Both the camera vendor and Buffalo Traffic Violations Agency review a speeding violation, and confirm a person was speeding, the city issues a citation. The speeding camera contract has the potential to go up to 20 school zones, and it remains unclear from Common Council if data will be available to the public. The City of Buffalo collected about 5,000 tickets per week on nine cameras since the warning period ended and made $36 per ticket, with the camera vendor earning $14 per ticket. Estimated revenue from the tickets collected is $1.62 million for Buffalo, and $630,000 for the vendor. The total cost to people who disobey the speed limit is roughly $2.25 million per week.

There was harsh disagreement within the Common Council on how the city uses traffic cameras during non-school hours. Some councilmembers believe the school should control how the City of Buffalo turns on the cameras to limit the number of tickets drivers receive while children are safe inside. Other believe the cameras should be on all day, and anyone who doesn't want a ticket should drive slower – or take public transportation. Some councilmembers have received complaints that the cameras are a "cash grab" by the city, and Wyatt specifically stated he does not want to fine people over $1.7 million during a pandemic. Councilmember Wyatt also noted that the cameras might not be protecting kids because of where they are placed – in some cases facing away from the school, which adds to the "cash grab' narrative.

Commissioner Helfer was adamant that schools use the communities around them during the day – necessitating the need for the cameras to regulate speed the whole school day – before revealing a map of 311 calls of people complaining about speeding near schools. Multiple school officials voiced their support of Mayor Brown’s veto, claiming they want the cameras on during the full school day, including Davinci High School and Trocaire College. GOBIKE and SayYes Executive directors also showed support for the mayor’s veto.

An odd note, however, is cameras are currently only located at parochial, private, and community schools. Councilmember Nowakowski stated he put forth legislation to make sure the Common Council uses the funds collected from tickets to fund traffic-calming school infrastructure to make the cameras less of a necessity. The Council is sent this to vote without recommendation.

Also during the Legislation meeting, a representative from Verizon sought to create small wireless facilities in the City of Buffalo that could lead to 5G Network Service in Buffalo. These 5G small networks could replace the need for large-scale media and fiberoptic cables for audio, video, and data transmission and communication. The Council tabled the issue for at least a month for more discussion.

During the Community Development Committee meeting, Common Council discussed renaming Columbus Park to Prospect Park at length, with both the Olmsted Conservancy and the Federation of Italian Americans supported the renaming. However, a resident did not agree, though another did with the naming. Councilmember Rivera sent the item to the full Council for approval.  

Need more than just a summary? Contact us at info@ppgbuffalo.org, or find full meeting information and schedules here: http://buffalony.iqm2.com/Citizens/Default.aspx

This summary was drafted by Orlando Dickson, Civic Educator at Partnership for the Public Good.