City government meetings are boring and tedious and deal with boring, tedious things — zoning, ceremonial items, paying a city’s bills. Most also allow time for the public to comment, which almost always entices the local gadflies and cranks to show up and share whatever’s on their minds. And it’s often the most interesting part of the meetings.
Nonetheless, the town board of Sanford, N.Y., got tired of one particular topic coming up in public comments: fracking. Speaker after speaker would rail against the practice, which is currently banned in the state. The town board reached its limit last fall, voting to ban any further comment from the public on the topic.
In spirit, we can appreciate the frustration. In practice, however, we would strongly encourage elected officials to remember that public meetings don’t exist for their convenience. To help remind the Sanford board of that fact, local residents (with the support of the Natural Resources Defense Council) are suing. From the Associated Press:
“If people are silenced by their own elected representatives, how can they trust them to act in their best interests?” said Natural Resources Defense Council attorney Kate Sinding as her group announced the U.S. District Court lawsuit. NRDC and Catskill Citizens for Safe Energy filed the lawsuit on behalf of town residents who are members of their groups.
Robert Freeman, director of the state’s Committee on Open Government, said a public body isn’t required to allow the public to speak at meetings. If the town board chooses to permit public participation, it can adopt “reasonable rules” to ensure fairness.
“The fact is that the Open Meetings Law gives the public the right to be there, but says nothing about the right to speak,” Freeman said.
Sinding disagreed, saying boards can adopt rules such as time limits or equal time provisions. “It does not mean completely banning speech on a particular topic, especially one of the most important and timely topics in the state,” she said.
Towns in upstate New York fall into three categories, as you’d expect: pro-fracking, anti-fracking, and undecided. Sanford’s leadership certainly falls into the first category. Many other towns fall into the second, several of them recently pledging to maintain local fracking bans even if the state’s is lifted. Others, like Penn Yan in the Finger Lakes region, are divided.
According to the lawsuit, the town leased land to XTO Energy [in] 2008 and later issued a permit allowing the company to use a road to enable it to withdraw water for use in natural gas extraction. Sanford’s town board also approved a resolution calling on the New York Legislature to “stand aside” in the fracking debate and allow state officials to issue permits allowing fracking, the suit noted. …
Around two-thirds of the land in the town has been leased to the gas industry, according to Melissa Bishop, a resident who opposes fracking and the town’s vote to stop discussion on the subject. She accused the board of failing to allow the democratic process to unfold on matters of public interest.
If the lawsuit and common sense both fail, there is another option for Bishop and other Sanford residents. In 2014, some of those town board members will be up for reelection.