Attorney Paul Wolf discusses open government at UB
Wolf shares report on public college councils’ adherence to Open Meetings Law
A local coalition for open government graded 10 public college councils on their adherence to New York’s Open Meetings Law. UB was one of them.
Paul Wolf, a local attorney and president of the The Buffalo Niagara Coalition for Open Government, visited UB on Monday to discuss Sunshine Week and the report with The Spectrum. Sunshine Week, which is March 10-16, is a national celebration organized by the American Society of News Editors to “promote a dialogue” on the importance of freedom of information and open government. The coalition’s report examined the transparency practices of 10 State University of New York schools.
Wolf said OML needs to be “strengthened” to include public participation and posting meeting documents alongside minutes and video recordings of the meetings.
UB was the closest SUNY school to passing the report, with a 64 percent rating.
Wolf criticized the conduct at the last UB Council meeting, where the council went into executive session shortly after Willis McCumber, an English Ph.D. student, began speaking out of turn.
Wolf said the decision to go into executive session was “improper” and unjustified.
“You can’t just throw [executive session] out there because someone is disrupting the meeting,” Wolf said.
He said council members’ actions were, in part, the “bad custom” of the council in general.
“People get on the board [and think] ‘This is the way we’ve always done it,’” Wolf said. “‘Nobody’s ever questioned us on it, nobody’s ever challenged it, it’s the way we’ve always done it.’ You’re doing it wrong.”
Wolf said the best way to encourage organizations to follow laws is to have the support of a “legal opinion” and to “embarrass” the institutions through the press.
Philip Glick, chair of the Faculty Senate, said UB students, faculty and staff do not have access to legal representation to validate their concerns.
“The asymmetry of legal representation for the university versus whoever is having a dispute with them is the biggest problem that we have,” Glick said. “Open Meeting Laws are almost an oxymoron because if there’s a law, there must be something sanctioning it and there’s nothing. If [university administrators] don’t follow the laws, there’s nothing to make them follow the law.”
Wolf then agreed with former U.S. President James Madison’s famous quote that “all men having power ought to be mistrusted” and said people in positions of power have historically had “thin skin.”
He said this is the reason “tension exists between those who have authority and those who have the power of the press.”
Wolf said organizations typically “crave positive press,” but don’t want to be questioned about information that may be incriminating. He said as an attorney he had an “inside view” of organizations wanting to withhold information from the press.
“That’s the whole basis of a democratic society is being able to ask those questions and being able to push your elected officials for answers,” Wolf said. “I saw how often people wanted to hide things. It’s going to get out. You’re better off not trying to cover it up.”
Tanveen Vohra and Jacklyn Walters are co-senior news editors and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org