As in many communities in this region, natural gas drilling has become a flashpoint for furious disputation in parts of New York, where a moratorium remains in effect on hydraulic fracturing.
In the town of Sanford, N.Y., about 100 miles southwest of the state capital Albany, discussions about gas drilling had come to dominate so much of the town board’s meetings that the board passed a resolution in September prohibiting further discussion of the topic, saying that it was preventing them from conducting other business. Nonetheless, they’re still allowing opponents and proponents to submit written comments.
However, as the Associated Press reported last week, the Natural Resources Defense Council and Catskill Citizens for Safe Energy are filing a federal lawsuit against Sanford, contending the town board is violating residents’ rights to free speech.
“If people are silenced by their own elected representatives, how can they trust them to act in their best interests?” an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council asked.
But, in our opinion, the residents are not being “silenced” by members of the town board. They are not coercing residents to feel one way or another about gas drilling, and residents are allowed to discuss the issue with friends, family and neighbors until their throats are raw. The board has, reasonably, decided that the issue had come to soak up so much of the give-and-take at meetings that parameters needed to be drawn.
Elected officials in Pennsylvania have the right to set standards for public comment at meetings, and it’s much the same in New York. Robert Fleming, the director of New York’s Committee on Open Government, told the AP that there is no mandate requiring the public be allowed to speak at government meetings, and that “reasonable rules” can be put in place to make sure discussions don’t get out of hand.
According to an attorney for Sanford, “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.”
Our reporters and editors have witnessed similar scenarios being carried out in Washington and Greene counties. Hordes of residents arrive at a township, borough or city council meeting inflamed by one issue or another. They have their say in the portions of the meeting reserved for public comment, often at great length. Light is shed, but, sometimes, the remarks degenerate into a reiteration of points that have already been well and thoroughly made. From all indications, the town board in Sanford was facing this meeting after meeting after meeting.
One resident who opposed drilling told the AP that many people walked out of the September meeting when the Sanford board called a halt to the back-and-forth on fracking because “there was no point in being there.” Well, maybe not for him and other residents who are consumed by this one topic. But the board surely had zoning issues to ponder, roadwork to consider or resolutions to approve. That the board was not able to deal with its other duties in an efficient manner was a disservice to the board, the town’s employees and its residents.
As a newspaper that has vigorously supported sunshine laws and openness in government, we, of course, support free speech and vigorous debate on matters of public policy. But we also don’t believe that government meetings should be transformed into battlefields where residents can lob verbal grenades in never-ending wars.