Weekly Feature

2018-10-10 / Local News

Clarence resident recognized for urging openness in town government


Janet Vito of Clarence receives an award from Paul Wolf, president of the Buffalo Niagara Coalition for Open Government on Wednesday evening for her public participation at government meetings in Clarence. 
Photo by Julie Halm Janet Vito of Clarence receives an award from Paul Wolf, president of the Buffalo Niagara Coalition for Open Government on Wednesday evening for her public participation at government meetings in Clarence. Photo by Julie Halm The Buffalo Niagara Coalition for Open Government honored several Western New York residents last week for their help in pushing local governments and boards to be more open to the public and public comment.

President Paul Wolf presented an award to Clarence resident and BNCOG board member Janet Vito for her participation in local government as well as editing items for the coalition.

“There’s a senior citizen center in Clarence that was appointed by the Town Board. They changed the rules, saying that people weren’t allowed to speak during meetings and could only submit comments by writing,” Wolf said. “Janet [Vito] brought it to our attention, and the Clarence Town Board has now fixed it.”

Vito said she first read of the coalition in a newspaper and then heard an interview of Wolf on the radio.

“I told my husband that we were going to the next meeting. We have long been advocates for freedom of information and open meeting laws for many, many years,” Vito said. “There is support out there, and we’re grateful to the coalition and to Paul [Wolf].”

West Seneca resident Gary Dickson was also recognized for his public participation in the town government.

“[Dickson] really shows the difference that one person can make and, really, the power of social media,” Wolf said.

He added that in town government meetings, there’s typically a section in the agenda allotted for the public to speak before the board votes on an item. Wolf said that West Seneca residents were only able to speak after the Town Board voted.

“When [Dickson] posted on the Facebook page dedicated to West Seneca, he said it was wrong and it should be changed,” Wolf said. “A lot of people chimed in and weren’t aware of it. ... The Town Board member [Eugene Hart] got the agenda changed. Now, for the first time in at least 14 years, [Dickson], with some social media pressure, got the board to change the agenda.”

Dickson said he was building on the work of several other West Seneca residents who had been working on pushing the government.

“It just goes to show that public pressure does work,” he said after receiving the award. “It may take a while, but it does work.”

Later in an interview, Dickson said he and his wife of three years, Patti Stephens, moved to the area about a year and a half ago.

He said along with urging the town government to change the agenda, he said he also helped in restaffing the ethics committee for the West Seneca Town Board.

“When we moved here, the first thing I saw was the ethics committee had nobody on it; it hadn’t met in years. So, I met with both [councilmen], and I tried to meet with the supervisor,” Dickson said. “In Town Board meetings, I got up and said, ‘This is what’s been going on. It’s shameful.’”

He said the ethics committee was created in 2009 on paper but wasn’t staffed until 2014. Dickson said it lasted about two years until November 2015. He said it wasn’t re-staffed until around June of this year.

He also urged the board to film the meetings.

“Everybody for years has been pushing to allow videotaping and streaming of Town Board meetings,” he said. “It was only a few months ago that they said, ‘OK, we’ll try it.’ There have been lots of other people who, for years, have been pushing the Town Board of doing things like that.”

He said he had to applaud the board for making the changes.

“Maybe it was a little late, but they are giving into some of the requests. ... I’m fortunate to have been part of it,” Dickson said. “This award is for everybody who has been involved with the town government in West Seneca and not giving up, sticking with it.”

Dickson retired after 27 years with the FBI fighting organized crime and street gangs. He was also in the U.S. army.

Stephens, Dickson’s wife, is also involved with local government. She was recently elected as a chairwoman for the Republican Party of West Seneca.

“We’re both community minded people. I don’t want to say politicians, but we certainly have an interest in having West Seneca succeed,” Stephens said. “It’s just such a great place. We hope some new leadership, and a little tweaking, will help this area grow.”

The BNCOG is a nonpartisan, not-for-profit organization, according to Wolf. He said the next step is to become a 501(c)(3) organization, to begin receiving some funding.

Wolf said the coalition will continue to pursue local governments to be more open — posting meeting agendas and minutes, filming meetings, posting contact information for department heads and elected officials.

He said the BNCOG reported in 2017 that only two of 16 local governments, eight from Erie County and eight from Niagara County, were acceptable in terms of openness.

“Part of our mission is to educate the government officials that they need to do better, that they can do better and give them suggestions,” Wolf said. “Some will put up a meeting agenda, but not the documents. It’s a constant battle, and we’re seeing some results.”

In 2018, Wolf said the number of more open local governments has increased to six of the 16.

“All [the BNCOG is] interested in is good, open government. There’s no one policing this stuff,” he said. “So, hopefully by residents coming together, we can make it better.”

The next BNCOG meeting will take place at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 1 at the Williamsville Library, 5571 Main St.

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