NIAGARA FALLS, N.Y. — A debate in Niagara Falls over open government came to a head Wednesday when a group of neighbors held a rally outside City Hall. Their goal? To tell Mayor Robert Restaino that their voice isn't being heard.
Rally organizer, James Abbondanza, a previous candidate for the city council, said frustration has been building since the Mayor started holding consistent special council meetings during which there isn't a public comment period.
"[Mayor Restaino] has called more special meetings than we've had in decades. It's the norm for now but it has not been the norm in the past," Abbondanza said.
According to city council records, seven special meetings have been held within the past year, but five of those seven have occurred once a month since December.
While the Niagara Falls City Charter gives Mayor Restaino the power to call a special meeting whenever he'd like, Paul Wolf, President of the New York Coalition for Open Government, explained that these types of meetings are usually saved for emergency or time-sensitive situations
Wolf said his group sent a letter to the Mayor's Office expressing their concern about these special meetings but did not hear back.
"No law is being broken, I think it's being bent in a way and I think the special meetings are being used in a way that probably wasn't envisioned and I think the council has the legal authority to change that if they're willing," Wolf said.
During a typical council meeting, the public has the opportunity to speak about agenda items or express general concerns. The discussion can be limited during a Mayor sanctioned special meeting.
For example, neighbors who may have hoped to share their point of view on using American Rescue Plan funding to demolish a building or comment on the purchase of a new police vehicle, both of which were actual agenda items during a special meeting on May 16, they could not.
In April the council also voted 4-1 to cut their typical meetings down from being held twice a month to just once a month, citing a lack of agenda items.
Councilman Donta Myles was the one hold-out.
"Once it began to take place once it began to seem like culture I began to speak out against it and I began to boycott it," said Councilman Myles.
"If it didn't have any time sensitivity and if it didn't have a sense of urgency I chose not to come and that's because we weren't allowing the voice of the people to be heard on agenda items that we were voting on that were going to affect them."
When asked if he has spoken to the Mayor about his concerns, Councilman Myles said he hasn't but that the Council Chairman relayed a less than positive message.
As Paul Wolf pointed out the Niagara Falls City Council could change the rules for special meetings if they are able to reach a consensus.
2 On Your Side emailed and called Mayor Robert Restaino's Office for comment late Wednesday afternoon but did not hear back by the posting of this story.