ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — Two environmental groups filed a federal lawsuit on Tuesday against an upstate New York town, claiming it violated residents' right to free speech by banning discussion of natural gas drilling at town board meetings.
The town board in Sanford, about 100 miles southwest of Albany in Broome County, passed a resolution in September saying there already had been hours of public comment for and against gas drilling and that no further discussion would be allowed during board meetings, although residents could still submit comments in writing.
"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.
Herbert Kline, a Binghamton attorney who represents Sanford, said he couldn't comment specifically on the lawsuit because he hadn't seen it. He said the resolution to stop discussion came after board meetings became forums for gas-drilling debate.
"People who were against fracking had, in the minds of the town board, monopolized discussion in the public participation portion of prior meetings to the extent that very little other business could be accomplished," Kline said.
Natural gas development using high-volume hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is a major political issue in the state, with Gov. Andrew Cuomo expected to decide soon whether to lift a 4 1/2-year-old moratorium on it. Residents for and against development have packed town board meetings for months, with opponents succeeding in persuading boards in dozens of towns to enact bans or moratoriums.
Continue reading this story on the...