RICHMONDVILLE – A state expert on the Open Meetings Law generally sided with town officials Tuesday in the view that an advisory committee was not holding illegal “secret meetings” as alleged by leaders of Schoharie Valley Watch, an anti-industrial wind power group.
At the same time, committee Chairman Marty Thompson said the report and recommendations expected this week concerning how far potential wind turbine towers should be set back from property lines or buildings have been delayed another month.
Thompson also defended the committee against complaints by Schoharie Valley Watch co-chairmen Don Airey and Robert Nied that the committee has met privately and without public notice, allegedly in violation of the state’s Open Meetings Law.
“We weren’t trying to circumvent the process,” Thompson said, “It was a tremendous scheduling problem.”
Referring to Airey and Nied’s complaints that at least one meeting in February was held without any public notice, town Supervisor John Barlow said “as far as I know, [the meetings] are legal.”
The Town Board appointed the seven-member committee Dec. 27, at then-town Councilman Barlow’s request. The committee includes town Councilman Roy Bilby and Planning Board member Robert Reed, plus five other town residents.
Robert J. Freeman, executive director of the state Committee on Open Government, generally agreed Tuesday that such a committee is not required to comply with the law that covers governmental bodies and committees of public bodies such as a town board.
Schoharie Valley Watch requested a formal advisory opinion from Freeman March 2, but Freeman said Tuesday he was backlogged with other requests and it would likely be at least 10 weeks before he could provide a formal reply.
Speaking in general, however, Freeman said: “There are several judicial decisions [in which] the courts have held they are not public bodies required to be covered by the Open Meetings Law.”
“That’s not to say they cannot hold public meetings, it’s just that they are not required to,” Freeman said.
Freeman had supported Schoharie Valley in November, when they successfully argued that the Town Board was improperly limiting public speakers to town residents at a meeting discussing a proposed law to regulate any potential windpower projects.
In a Monday letter to Barlow, and in interviews, Nied and Airey have argued that the setback committee should be held to the same standard of meeting in public view.
“This is a very important committee, and there’s no doubt it should be conducted in the light of day,” Nied said.
At the Dec. 27 board meeting, outgoing Supervisor Betsy Bernocco said the committee meetings would be open to the public to observe, but not to public comment.
While stressing that he has deliberately avoided participating or talking with the committee to avoid bias, Barlow contended Tuesday that “they are strictly advisory … there’s no official status to the committee, it’s just a group of individuals.”
“They’re on their own … what’s happening [with the report,] I don’t know, and I want keep it that way.” Barlow said.
Thompson said the setback committee has met in three regular meetings, starting with a public Jan. 22 organizational meeting, plus a gathering he described as an informal “work session” in late February.
No formal public notice was given, partly due to difficulty finding a time all committee members were available, Thompson said.
In addition, “some committee members were uncomfortable about speaking their minds with a large group of people watching them,” he said.
The next meeting of the committee, scheduled for 7 p.m. March 31 in the basement of the Richmondville village office building at 295 Main St., will be public, Thompson said.
He said he expects the committee will have a report ready for the April 10 Town Board meeting, one month behind schedule.
Saying one committee member expects to out of town on business all month, “we haven’t been able to find a time when we can publicize a meeting in a timely fashion and get all seven members there before the end of this month, so we’ve asked for an extension,” Thompson said.
By R. J. Kelly
12 March 2008
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