The recent court ruling annulling action by two Herkimer County towns in support of a wind-turbine farm is a huge victory for the principles of open government.
It should serve as a lesson for all governmental boards that state Open Meetings Law is as important a law to follow as any other law on the books. And it should embolden residents to hold their leaders accountable when boards are shutting out the public improperly.
Earlier this year, the towns of Warren and Stark each gave approval to a key environmental review for the Jordanville Wind Project. That review process is lengthy and complex, and the wind-turbine developers could feel relief that this hurdle had been cleared.
Not so fast, state Supreme Court Justice Donald Greenwood ruled on Dec. 7.
Neighbors opposed to the projects because of their impact on the rural landscape had sued, citing among other things the two towns’ boards failure to follow Open Meetings Law. And Greenwood determined the residents were correct.
At times, the boards went into private session without stating a reason as required by law. Other times, the reasons they gave didn’t meet the standard for calling a closed-door session. And in at least two of the instances, the boards emerged and voted immediately to approve aspects of the wind-turbine project. The residents who sued could rightly feel left out of the process.
The two towns, wrote Greenwood, “circumvented the purpose of the Open Meetings Law, which is to prevent municipal governments from debating and deciding in private what they are required to debate and decide in public,” Greenwood ruled.
He even criticized Stark officials for forcing residents to leave the building – which is quite small – when the board goes into executive session. That simply shows disrespect for voters and taxpayers.
The outcome was severe for the two towns. The wind-turbine project must go through the environmental review process again, a costly prospect, and the project’s developers haven’t committed yet to doing so. If the turbines aren’t built, then Warren and Stark governments, along with Herkimer County and a local school district, stand to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue.
In addition, Greenwood is requiring the two towns to pay the opponents’ legal costs.
But that’s how it should be. For far too long, town and village governments and school boards have treated Open Meetings Law as a mere annoyance instead of as a legal requirement. Whether they are ignorant of the law or fearful of potential embarrassment, boards in the Mohawk Valley and elsewhere are far too likely to go behind closed doors when touchy subjects arise.
The law is quite clear that boards do the public’s business, and that in all but a handful of situations, that business must be conducted in front of residents. Let Warren and Stark be a reminder to all local public officials that they must do the right thing, and that they just might pay a price if they don’t.
19 December 2007
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