Transparency and the Future of Niagara Falls

Author: Bob Restaino

Transparency and the Future of Niagara Falls

Following are Bob’s complete thoughts on the issue of transparency in this election.

Today we hear so many people talking about “transparency,” whether in government, business or other institutions. It seems that everyone either claims that they have it, or that more of it is necessary.

We live in a world today where there are very few secrets; technology, social media and the 24 hour “news” cycles have put that to rest. But is transparency just talking about things openly or is it being honest about the things we openly talk about? Transparency presumes candor, clarity, openness, honesty and accountability.

Do these qualities reflect the culture of City Hall or are we dealing with the “spin” of a story or worse, less than full disclosure?

Just look at the recent history of the current administration in the presentation of the garbage tote program or more recently, the garbage user fee. In both instances, there was a failure to be clear and straightforward with the public. Either through ignorance or fear, City Hall did not provide full disclosure to the public which lead to mistrust and a disregard for the concerns of the public.

In order to have true transparency City Hall needs a mayor who is not afraid to engage in a free flow of information with the City Council, department heads, city employees and, especially, the residents of the city.

When this openness is valued and encouraged by the mayor, demonstrating the mayor’s belief in the value of public opinion, department heads will become willing to rethink the most basic assumptions on how their departments should operate. When constructive dissent is valued by the mayor a more effective level of decision making is the reward.

Currently there is a cohesive group of “insiders” in this administration who act with a sense of entitlement and superiority since they “know” something that everyone else doesn’t. This culture has been institutionalized as a privilege of rank within City Hall.

While the group pays lip service to public participation in programming and budgeting, a sense of entitlement convinces this group to believe that their decisions are flawless. They govern believing that they can do no wrong and the public should be happy to blindly follow their “enlightened decisions.” This City Hall ethos has put us in the precarious financial situation we face and is as far from transparent as one could get.

Critical to true transparency and a good civic relationship are clarity and straightforward communication about what’s really going on in City Hall. How was it that last fall the NYS Comptroller designated Niagara Falls as one of only three NYS cities to receive his highest crisis designation of “significant fiscal stress” and yet members of this administration tell us that we are enjoying great progress and wonderful success?

Being honest and accountable are indispensable to transparency. Our city needs a mayor who is prepared to face the challenges that lie ahead; having an open conversation with the public; and ready to confront situations which may come with some personal cost. I understand this experience and have endured and overcome the consequences. As mayor I am prepared to meet the fiscal challenges that confront the City, but not alone or with a group of “insiders” who will not speak truth to power.

Within our community, I believe there is a real need to restore the public’s trust in and respect for city government. The public wants to believe that the decisions made at City Hall are not based on a secret agenda that reflect a particular special interest, but, rather, the decision being proposed is in the best interest of the entire community.

Do you feel that the recent proposal to enact a garbage user fee was developed with the opportunity for department heads to voice an opposing point of view? Was there an opportunity for public input prior to the policy being put in front of the City Council?

I believe the organizational culture currently prevailing within City Hall is characterized by denial and self-deception. Some have criticized the current administration as being too reactive rather than proactive. I believe the tendency at City Hall has been to wait for Albany to provide our city with its latest “bail out.” My vision as mayor would be to construct a collaborative system of government founded on strong working relationships with our first-ring suburbs, Niagara County, and area business groups so that Niagara Falls can demonstrate to Albany that it has the talent to solve its own problems

Restoring the public’s trust and respect for city government will not be easy. It will take an honest, candid conversation with government officials, public employees, business people, labor leaders and city residents. It will take listening to new ideas, re-evaluating current systems and accepting constructive critique. It will take opening communication with all levels of government and with our Native American neighbors. If we can do this we can get Niagara Falls back on track. If we can do this we will truly achieve transparency in City Hall.

I think we can, and as mayor I would be committed to the task, and with your help reset city government for a successful future.