Town's Ban of Fracking Talk Challenged

By Candace Chapman

Town's Ban of Fracking Talk Challenged

February 12, 2013 Updated Feb 13, 2013 at 12:02 AM EDT

Town of Sanford, NY (WBNG Binghamton) A lawsuit has been filed against the Town of Sanford claiming its resolution to limit discussion on natural gas development is a violation of free speech.

The Natural Resources Defense Council and Catskill Citizens for Safe Energy filed the lawsuit Tuesday in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York on behalf of its Sanford members. The lawsuit asks the court to declare the ban on their speech unconstitutional. It also asks the court to prohibit the town from enforcing the ban.

"A lively debate is taking place in Albany and communities across the shale-rich Southern Tier of New York. Not so for the Town of Sanford, however, who have been silenced by their Town Board from speaking about natural gas development at Town Board Meetings," the lawsuit states.

Sanford Town Council passed the resolution at its Sept.11, 2012, meeting. It states: "no further comment will be received during the public participation portion of this or any future meeting regarding natural gas development until such time as New York State Department of Environmental Conservation completes its environmental review of such activity. 

"However, any resident of the Town may submit in writing to the Town Clerk such additional materials or information that they wish this Board to consider at that time."

Town Attorney, Herb Kline, said the discussions on natural gas development were growing lengthy and pushed some meetings late into the evening to get through the agenda.

The resolution was approved based on opinions of the New York Committee on Open Government that the town does not need to recieve public comment at a meeting.

Kline pointed to a letter the committee addressed to Leland Snyder of Sanford, which stated although the state's Open Meetings Law provides the public the right "to observe the performance of public officials, to attend and listen to the deliberations and decisions that go into the making of public policy," the law is silent with respect to public participation.

The committee also wrote, based on case law, the board has the authority to limit comments to topics on the agenda or prohibit remarks regarding a particular topic. In its opinon, limiting all comments on a topic based on experience with similar comments is not unreasonable, the committee wrote.

The lawsuit argues the public participation portions of Sanford Town Board meetings are open to comment and participation in general, and except for the ban, has not set any restrictions on what can be discussed.