A prime example of the transparency and accountability problems of the current bi-national entities that control our Niagara Frontier border crossings is an ongoing battle to obtain just a bit of information from the Niagara Falls Bridge Commission
. For over two years, elected officials in Niagara County have been fighting for information about the 2008 severance of the Niagara Falls Bridge Commission's then-General Manager, Thomas Garlock -- who on two occasions has suddenly resigned from high-profile Western New York positions in circumstances widely believed to be involuntary.
Sudden Departure of General Manager Raises Questions About Transparency
Thomas Garlock left his position as President of the Buffalo Zoo in 1999, after being the very visible and -- in the end -- very much disliked public face of the ill-conceived and ill-received attempt to move the zoo
to the Buffalo River. In the ensuing fight, Garlock demonstrated such a tin ear and insensitivity toward citizen concerns -- "the only animals the people in the Parkside neighborhood are concerned about are the homo sapiens," he said at one point -- that by the time the zoo move died, Garlock's support on the board had largely eroded. Although some claimed to have been surprised by his sudden departure, and although official statements said that he had resigned, questions remain about how voluntary it was.
After a brief stint as communications director for the New York Independent System Operator, Garlock was hired as General Manager of the Niagara Falls Bridge Commission -- a well-compensated job with poorly understood responsibilities (what remains of Garlock on the Commission's web site shows him making appearances and smiling a lot). According to Senator Maziarz, Garlock was hired by a Pataki appointee on the Bridge Commission. When Garlock was fired in July, 2008, after an executive session of the Bridge Commission, very little was known about the reasons for or terms of the separation. Although speculation has been rife
, only the briefest of statements was reported by the Niagara Gazette
at the time:
Norma Higgs, vice chairwoman of the commission, said Wednesday the decision to replace Garlock was made during an executive session at the Commission's regular meeting on Monday.
But Maziarz heard through the grapevine that the separation package was worth potentially "hundreds of thousands of dollars," according to Maziarz, including a quarter-Million in separation, a commission-provided SUV, and lifetime health insurance for Garlock and his wife. "And the guy probably has forty years in front of him!" Maziarz said.
To confirm what he was hearing, Maziarz wrote a letter to the bridge commission seeking information -- and ran into a brick wall. The reason? In their letter declining to disclose, the Commission claimed that they're not a public authority -- even though four of their eight members are appointed by the governor of New York. In what Maziarz panned
as "a holier-than-thou attitude," Chairperson Janice Thomson sniffed, "those who pay bridge tolls receive safe, efficient passage in exchange for thei payment -- there is no further entitlement to information concerning the Commission's activities." To the Buffalo News' Freedom of Information request, the Commission maintained "that is (the Board collectively, Canadians and Americans) is bound by the laws of Ontario, where the U.S. [Freedome of Information Law] has no jurisdiction.
Maziarz pushed back publicly
, backed by Robert Freeman, head of the state Committee on Open Government. Freeman determined that anything that comes into the hands of the Commission members appointed by the governor is subject to U.S. Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) -- not to mention a Freedom of Information provision in the Commission's own constitution.
And the Niagara County legislature also got in on the act, after their own FOIL request was denied. They passed a resolution co-sponsored by Legislator Renae Kimble
and then-Legislator now-Assemblyman John Ceretto
, calling on the Bridge Commission to reveal the information, but to no avail. According to the Niagara Gazette
, Commission members continued to maintain that the agency, as constitued, is not obligated to share such information publicly. Legislator Kimble's response?
"That's been the problem with this agency," Kimble said. "They feel as though they answer to no one. Obviously, they answer to someone. We need to know, who do they answer to?"
Shortly thereafter, Ceretto and fellow County Legislator Danny W. Sklarski took it to the next level by filing suit against the Commission (in June, 2009), represented by attorneys Nelson Perel and Charles Graney.
As they later told the Buffalo News (October 22, 2010):
"Anyone who enters the United States at the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge can see the Commission's beautiful headquarters building, on U.S. soil in Lewiston," said Nelson Perel, one of the attorneys seeking to make the Garlock information public. "Yet, for purposes of public information, the commission claims it is subject to Canadian laws."
Perel and Charles E. Graney represent Niagara County Legislators John D. Ceretto and Danny W. Sklarski. Their lawsuit is also supported by State Sen. George D. Maziarz, R-Newfane, and B. Thomas Golisano, the billionaire owner of the Buffalo Sabres.
"Mr. Garlock was the top employee of the entire Bridge Commission. He was being paid with public money," Graney argued. He added that Garlock is an American citizen who lived and worked in the U.S.
Golisano Backs Lawsuit
At that point, Tom Golisano -- who at the time owned the Buffalo Sabres and was never averse to vocal involvement in local affairs -- stepped in. "Tom sees this in the paper," Maziarz told me, "calls me up and says '35% of my [Sabres] customers come across the bridge. They're paying, like $4 in tolls and maybe paying too much.' " In other words, if the Bridge Commission is paying out such a lucrative settlement, perhaps that's an indication of waste which could be causing tolls to be artificially too high. As Golisano told the Buffalo News (February 7, 2009), he decided that his Responsible New York organization would pay for a lawsuit aiming to force the Commission to not only disclose its finances, but also open its meetings to the media and the public. Currently, it appears that the main source of financial information for the Commission is the two pie charts printed in its annual report.
At a joint news conference with Maziarz at City Hall in Niagara Falls, Golisano said of the Commission, "What are they trying to hide?" And Maizarz complained, "The Bridge Commission operates in almost total secrecy. Their meetings are closed to both the public and the press."
The Commission's reply was in part through its lead attorney on the matter, Adam W. Perry, who declared the lawsuit, "without merit." A well-connected Buffalo attorney, Perry also serves as a commissioner of the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority
, a public entity which provides transportation services in Erie and Niagara Counties. According to his Hodgson-Russ bio, he is also President of Mayor Byron Brown's Fund to Advance Buffalo, and per reporting by the Buffalo News' James Heaney
, he has made over $23,000 in campaign contributions since 2004, "most of them to Brown and politicians aligned with the mayor." As you may recall from last year's turmoil over former Buffalo Commissioner of Human Resources Karla Thomas, Perry chaired the search committee that originally recommended her for the position. And he is currently chairing Erie County's legislature redistricting commission -- see coverage in this week's Artvoice.
Bridge Commissioner Thomas Pryce, in reacting to the lawsuit, won the Dale Carnegie award, saying to the media of Maziarz, "The Senator is playing dumb."
The results of the lawsuit? Inconclusive, so far, and drawn out due to delays and jurisdictional issues. According to the Buffalo News (December 16, 2009), "The suit, originally filed in State Supreme Court, was transferred to federal court at the Bridge Commission's request. Once the transfer was made, the Commission moved to have it dismissed." Although that motion was denied, the plaintiffs did have to refile the suit in 2010. In doing so, then-Legislator (now Assemblyman) Ceretto had some choice words for the Commission, per the Niagara Gazette
"We will assert our rights under the Freedom of Information Act," Ceretto said Monday. "Further, though, we will finally address the ludicrous notion that the Bridge Commission is 'binational' and thus unanswerable to us as American citizens."
"The games being played by the Niagara Falls Bridge Commission are growing tiresome," Ceretto said. "This entity, created by an act of Congress more than half a century ago, claims to somehow be exempt from U.S. laws. And, this same entity then tells our friends in Canada that it is exempt from their laws as well. That's a pretty amazing thing -- an agency that says it is accountable to no one."
But the best was yet to come, in the subsequent hearing held before Judge Arcara last October, where the tete-a-tete between another Hodgson-Russ attorney for the Bridge Commission and Judge Arcara was quite animated. Rick Pfeiffer of the Niagara Gazette provided some highlights
If he asked the question once, U.S. District Court Judge Richard Arcara asked it a dozen times during a Thursday morning hearing.
"There is something about this I really don't understand," Arcara said to Niagara Falls Bridge Commission lawyer Kevin Kearney. "What's the big secret?"
The repeated exchanges between Kearney and Arcara were part of a 45-minute argument over whether the Bridge Commission is bound by the federal Freedom of Information Act. The act requires government agencies and entities to make information about their operations available to the public.
"What are you trying to hide? Who are you trying to protect?" Judge Arcara asked Kearney. "Explain that to me."
Maziarz holds back no scorn for the amount of money being spent by the Bridge Commission on legal fees in this case.
"[Hodgson-Russ] is making hundreds of thousands of dollars on this case -- money that should be going toward reducing the cost of living in Western New York," Maziarz said.
From Lack of Transparency to Bad Planning
To Maziarz, issues with the Bridge Commission go beyond the Garlock firing, to planning and decision making. First is their spending nearly $6 Million to move their headquarters from downtown Niagara Falls to a newly constructed facility on formerly vacant land in Lewiston -- a project that Thomas Garlock moved forward. The new headquarters, which Maziarz calls the "Taj Mahal," is literally a stone's throw -- and perhaps future golf-cart path connection -- from the Niagara Falls Country Club. Second is a new convention center in Ontario, which the Bridge Commission is financially assisting. "We believe it will have a detrimental impact on our side of the border, and we can't even get any information on it!" Maziarz exclaimed.
I asked Maziarz if it isn't ironic that he's concerned about the Bridge Commission building a new headquarters in his district, and moving from Niagara Falls, which is not in his district? Maziarz told me that the district doesn't matter to him, that it's simply bad planning to move an administrative facility out of a city, to a new building on empty land. To him, it's an example of the failure of the Commission to do good planning. "Regional planning is what they should be doing -- and they have the money to pay for it!" he exclaimed. "Instead, they're putting money in the pockets of enablers like Hodgson Russ. We believe they [the Bridge Commission] take in $40 Million or more from the public, annually. And they won't even tell us how the money is spent?!"
The Final Word from the Bridge Commission's Attorney
In the end, I think the Bridge Commission's own attorney makes the most telling statement. Adam Perry told the Niagara Gazette, "it would not be fair to compare the Niagara Falls Bridge Commission to other border crossing entities -- such as the Peace Bridge Authority. Each bridge entity is unique in its governing laws," he said. "They were established at different times by different governments." Excellent rationale for finally bringing some coherence to this inefficient, non-transparent, dissonant management of one our region's most singularly important resources: our border crossings.
Thomas Garlock's LinkedIn profile shows him currently working as a consultant based in Florida. Ironically, given his experience with the Buffalo Zoo expansion project, in his profile he describes himself as an "Effective communicator. Easily winning the confidence of diverse constituencies." Regarding his time at the Bridge Commission, he says in his LinkedIn profile that he is "deeply disappointed that the political appointees dropped the momentum I generated to rebuild the Lewiston Plaza."
Niagara County Legislator Renae Kimble has just announced that she will not run for another term, after nearly two decades in the legislature. See this week's opinion piece by Niagara Gazette columnist Bill Bradberry.