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Towns pass pro-drilling resolutions; expert weighs in on open meetings laws compliance

By Fritz Mayer
July 18, 2012

UPPER DELAWARE VALLEY — It’s becoming fairly clear that local zoning laws are going to play a role in whether gas drilling is going to occur in any given town or village.

In an interview with National Public Radio in early July, Governor Andrew Cuomo said, “I think it’s inarguable that one should take into consideration home rule, and if you have communities that have an expressed desire to proceed, I think that should be taken into consideration if you decide to go down this road at all. Obviously, if a community says that they oppose it, that should be taken into consideration.”

With that as background, several New York communities have passed resolutions recently that affirm the rights of residents to exploit any natural gas that may exist beneath their properties. In two of those towns, residents charged the resolutions were passed in violation of Open Meetings Law.

On July 10, the Town of Hancock passed a resolution that was described by a resident who attended the meeting as a “detailed affirmation of fracking.” The resolution was not posted on the website in advance of the meeting, as required by NYS Open Meetings Law, which was updated in February, but the language of the law leaves a bit of room for wiggle. It says the posting must be done if “practicable.”

However, Robert Freeman, executive director of the NY Committee on Open Government (COOG) and widely considered to be the foremost expert on the law, said that, these days, if a municipality has a website, it’s not going to be very difficult to update it, and if it does not, the municipality has the obligation to provide copies of the resolution to people who request it.

He said that the Open Meeting Law was updated to provide the public with the opportunity to become familiar with resolutions before they come up at a meeting and to avoid surprises.

Town of Hancock Supervisor Sam Rowe said, in an email, “I’ve been supervisor for 11 years, and we have never posted any of our resolutions on our website or in printed form.”

He added, “The resolution was the result of having several residents request that we have a moratorium and several residents for resolution in favor. Basically, it says that we are in favor if it can be done safely. Also it says that the town doesn’t have the financial resources for a legal battle that towns are facing because of bans. Our hope was to have something that would please both anti- and pro-gas parties.”

Another complaint was that the resolution did not appear on the agenda. Freeman said the law makes no mention of agendas, and if a town has one, it can choose to follow it or not.