Sanford residents drop lawsuit as fracking "gag order" ends

By Matt Porter

April 18, 2013 Updated Apr 18, 2013 at 5:17 PM EST

Binghamton, NY (WBNG Binghamton) Residents of the town of Sanford and their attorney ended a lawsuit against the town claiming victory.

The town board issued a 'gag order' on public comment on hydraulic fracturing last September.

A small group of residents came together and filed a lawsuit in February arguing the ban was unconstitutional and violated their First Amendment rights of free speech.

Attorney Jon Krois said the town could not prevent citizens from speaking about the controversial issue of hydraulic fracturing.

"The people of Sanford have a constitutional right not to be silenced in an open public town board meeting," Krois said, "Especially on an issue that has such a key importance to the people of this town and is potentially threatening to the people that live there."

Attorney Al Millis represented the town of Sanford in the case.

He said open meetings law does not require towns to hold open public forums at meetings, however he admitted it's more difficult for towns to selectively choose what can be discussed.

He said if the case moved forward, it would be difficult and expensive.

"It was by no means a slam dunk in our favor," Millis said.

Instead, the town opted to drop the 'gag rule' and institute new policies for all public comments during meetings.

The town will hold the public comments at the end instead of the start of meetings.

The town board will reserve the right to limit speakers to three minutes, or cut them off if their comments are repetitive or do not add anything 'helpful to the board's understanding of the topic.'

Residents at a press conference at Citizen Action in Binghamton praised the move.

Husband and wife Gail and Michael Musante were relieved that the fight was over.

"It was almost as if our voices were taken away, our right to speak was taken away," Gail Musante said. "And we were really just asking to be citizens, grown-ups."

"Citizens of no municipality should be shut down in what they can say to public officials. They should bring any concern they have to them, and should be entitled to fair and equal consideration," Michael Musante said.

The town rules on public comments in meetings also restrict vulgar or insensitive comments from being said.