During my 12-year career as a newspaper reporter, I spent thousands of hours sitting through city council meetings, zoning board hearings, property tax appeals, school board work sessions, and just about every other kind of attention-sapping municipal meeting you could possibly imagine. (It wasn’t all bad: I met my wife at one.) At these meetings, it wasn’t uncommon for the same topics to come up over and over again, frequently with the same people making the same points about the same issues that everyone in attendance has heard a million times before. (Think “Parks and Rec” without any laughs.) So I sympathize, perhaps more than I should, with elected officials and public servants who would like to find a way to make topics they’ve heard about and debated endlessly just … go ... away.
Still, I had never heard of a town that actually imposed a gag order on its own citizens, until the Natural Resources Defense Council (which publishes OnEarth) received complaints about a town board in Sanford, New York (population: 2,400), that told its residents they could no longer bring up concerns about fracking at town meetings.
NRDC and a local partner, Catskill Citizens for Safe Energy, sued the Sanford town board Tuesday Morning, claiming that the ban on fracking discussions violates the First Amendment rights of the town’s residents, some of whom are NRDC members. In a complaint to the U.S. District Court, the organizations say the town violated the U.S. and New York State constitutions by restricting residents’ right to free speech during the public participation portion of town meetings, which remains open to all other topics -- just not fracking. (Below is a video of the September 11 meeting at which the gag order was adopted.)
Sanford sits in what is called New York’s Southern Tier, on the Pennsylvania border. More importantly for this discussion, it’s in the heart of Marcellus Shale country, where a deep-rock formation contains large natural gas reserves that can only be reached through a controversial and disruptive process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. South of the border, Pennsylvania communities are being swarmed by natural gas drillers who are driving a boom in U.S. energy development -- along with concerns about air and water pollution, health impacts, community division, and declining property values. (For an account of how one Pennsylvania community is being affected, see “Fracking the Amish.”) North of the border, though, a moratorium prevents fracking while New York State regulators study whether it can be done safely, and what rules are needed to protect residents. [UPDATE: State Health Department Commissioner Nirav Shah said Tuesday that a key health review on fracking is going to take more time, likely pushing back a decision that had been expected by the end of this month.]
Communities that stand to be affected by fracking have taken positions on both sides of the debate, with some expressing support for the economic benefits and others enacting rules to forbid natural gas drilling inside their borders. Sanford’s town board has come down largely on the pro-fracking side, even leasing land to a natural gas company for drilling within the town and passing a resolution urging state lawmakers to allow fracking to proceed. A week before the gag order was imposed, Town Supervisor Dewey Decker signed a letter to Governor Cuomo asserting that a delay was “only empowering opponents” -- including, presumably, the opponents in his own community.
Naturally, those fracking opponents weren’t too happy about the board’s pro-drilling actions, and they were vocal about it during the board’s public comment sessions, leading to the gag order. Herbert Kline, an attorney who represents Sanford, told the Associated Press, "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.”
You know what? Tough. Again speaking as someone who has spent thousands of hours in public meetings, that’s what happens when people have strong opinions about issues that matter to their lives, their families, and their community: they want to talk about them, and they wanted their elected decision makers to listen. And for people who live in the Marcellus Shale region, it’s hard to imagine an issue more vital to their health and homes than fracking. Mike Mustante, one of the Sanford residents prevented from speaking out, told NRDC that by gagging him, the town board “ended any chance that I might have to affect the future value of my home, or the quality of the air I breathe, or the water I drink.” That’s the kind of thing a guy won't shut up about.