Redactions keep public in dark on village water

Significant redactions were made by the Chautauqua County Health Department to the LaBella Water System Evaluation Report on the Fredonia water system that was submitted to the Village in mid-November of last year. Major portions of the report were censored from public view by the Chautauqua County Health Department. Unfortunately, the public has not been allowed to read the full report that was originally submitted to the Village by LaBella Engineers.

At the bottom of the first page (title page) of the LaBella report is the following sentence: “In coordination with the Chautauqua County Department of Health, the Village has redacted the original report to create this public release version which has been determined to be appropriate for public viewing.” This caveat makes it appear that it was the Village that was responsible for the redactions in the LaBella report. This statement is misleading and incorrect.

To my knowledge, the Village Board of Trustees did not make or approve any redactions to the LaBella water report. If the Village Board did so, it would be required to pass a resolution at a public meeting of the Village Board. If disclosure would create a real danger to the public safety, the Village Board could call for an executive session which it has not done. It could then adopt a resolution in executive session if permitted by law, but minutes of the meeting need to be taken, including a record of the votes of Village Board members. To my knowledge The Village Board did not do this.

Only after the County Health Department intervened were the redactions made by the County Health Department and they were substantial.

If any official of the Village attempted to delegate to another person or entity the authority to redact portions of the LaBella report, such authorization transferring its authority would be of no effect.

Natalie Whiteman from the County Health Department was quoted in the OBSERVER on March 15, that “We want to support you going forward and have your public as educated as they can be about what’s going on and where you are in the process.” But how does the County Health Department’s redacting of information in the LaBella water study keep the public educated? It doesn’t.

If the Labella Engineering firm thought anything in its Fredonia Water report was a threat to the safety of the public and its Village water supply, they would have recommended the redactions themselves in the original report they submitted to the Village. They did not.

Also, the engineering firm of O’Brien & Gere who published its report on the Village water system about seven years ago did not make any redactions in its report to the Village nor did the County or Village.

The LaBella report cost the Village of Fredonia $144,000.00. It’s a public document paid by the taxpayers and water customers of the Village of Fredonia to assist in making a very important decision regarding the future of Fredonia’s water system.

New York State has declared in its enactment of the state Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) the following:

“The more open a government is with its citizenry, the greater the understanding and participation of the public in government. The people’s right to know the process of governmental decision-making and to review the documents and statistics leading to determinations is basic to our society. Access to such information should not be thwarted by shrouding it with the cloak of secrecy or confidentiality. The legislature therefore declares that government is the public’s business and that the public, individually and collectively and represented by a free press, should have access to the records of government in accordance with the provisions of this article.” (emphasis added).

Despite the fact that the LaBella report is a public document, the County Health Department, without Village Board approval, has taken upon itself to make significant redactions in the LaBella report.

At least 34 pages out of approximately 80 pages of the report were either wholly or partly redacted, including the attached appendices.

In reading the headings of the some of the paragraphs that were deleted, it is very difficult to justify why the history of the reservoir, lost and unaccounted water, names of creeks, location of existing facilities, information on the Spoden Road storage tank, recommendations for corrections etc, have anything to do with preventing a threat to public safety. They are already a matter of public knowledge.

What other redactions were made by the County Health Department to the facts, findings and recommendations set forth in the LaBella report? The public has a right to know. Members of the public, if they have the unredacted report and are knowledgeable about the Village water system, can be of great help. Also, the Village Planning Board should have been asked to assist the Village Board.

The Village Board unfortunately did not sit down with the LaBella engineers and other interested parties in open workshop sessions to thoroughly review the LaBella report.

The LaBella report was received by the Village only 45 days prior to the County imposed December 31 deadline. It’s impossible for the Village Board to complete a thorough review of the LaBella report in such a short period of time.

The County Health Department did not step forward and grant the Village Board a reasonable extension of time to do its due diligence and make an informed decision. The refusal by the County Health Department to grant an extension of time to the Village has contributed to a rushed decision by the Village Board.

Redacting facts or recommendations from the LaBella report hinders the public in making an informed opinion that they can communicate to their elected officials. It can result in the Village Board selecting an option for the Village that is not in the best interests of the Village of Fredonia.

To summarize, it’s important that the residents of the Village and all Village water customers have access to the unredacted version of the LaBella report so they clearly understand the options, including all the facts surrounding the options. The public has been denied that access.

Redactions to the LaBella report should not be made unless the Village Board can determine with a reasonable degree of certainty that the portions of the LaBella report that are redacted constitute a clear and real danger to the public if disclosed. If the Village Board does not make such a finding, then the full unredacted LaBella report that was submitted to and paid by the Village of Fredonia, should also be made available to the public as soon as possible.

Sam Drayo Jr. is a Fredonia resident and former attorney for the village.


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