Stephen Reichenbach and some neighbors didn’t like the idea of their landscape being marred by almost 50 turbines in the towns of Warren and Stark – some of which could be hundreds of feet high.
So Reichenbach, a Stark resident, and others began attending board meetings last year about the Jordanville Wind Project. As they continued attending, concerns were raised about how the boards would at times go into executive session without reason at key meetings on the wind project.
Fifteen of these residents, including Reichenbach, didn’t let it go without a fight – they took it to court.
And they won.
State Supreme Court Justice Donald Greenwood of Onondaga County ruled in December 2007 that the Warren and Stark town boards acted in violation of the state’s Open Meetings Law and Freedom of Information Law, and he awarded attorney’s fees to the environmental group that brought the lawsuit against the wind-turbine project.
Greenwood also ruled that the Warren Town Board failed to look closely enough at the project’s potential impact. The town was the lead agency for a state-required environmental review.
Stark town Supervisor Richard Bronner and Warren town Supervisor Richard Jack both said the towns each recently filed a notice of appeal on the judges’ ruling.
In light of Sunshine Week, the O-D interviewed Reichenbach about the successful lawsuit and open government.
Why did you decide to sue and how did you go about it?
Reichenbach said he has lived in the area for a few years, and built his house on Travis Road in 2004. He said he heard about the turbine project, but hadn’t known how much of an effect it would have on his property until he started learning more about it.
“When they did release the map of the project layout, I saw that my neighbor’s turbine was going to be pretty close to where my house was,” he said.
Reichenbach got in touch with Sue Brander, who at the time was running Advocates of Stark, and Martha Frey, executive director of residents’ group Otsego 2000, who had a good background in town law, he said.
As Reichenbach and others began regularly attending town meetings, they realized the boards were often not going into executive session for the right reasons, he said.
“Other people had concerns, too, and everyone put their concerns together,” he said.
How did you feel when you were asked to leave meetings?
“I was at meetings when they made us leave,” he said, noting he knew it was not right. “They didn’t really give a good reason for going into executive session.”
Some residents began keeping tabs on when the board would go into executive session and what the reason was, he said.
“It’s something we checked on after that,” he said. “We just made sure we kept good notes on what happened during the board meetings.”
How did you familiarize yourself with the Open Meetings Law?
Talking to people and researching, among things, he said.
“From talking to other people from other towns and hearing about people in other areas that were fighting wind projects – they seemed to have the same stories,” he said.
The state Committee on Open Government Web site also was a good research tool, and laid out the reasons why boards can go into executive session, Reichenbach said.
How did you feel when you found the judge ruled in your favor?
“We thought it was great. We really had no idea how it was going to go, and I think the towns still don’t think they did anything wrong,” Reichenbach said. “It’s still ongoing. It definitely wasn’t the finale of the whole project. It just showed our vigilance.”
Have you noticed any wrongdoings since then?
“We’ve always had someone at every town board meeting,” he said, noting there have not been any issues since the judges’ ruling. “They are definitely paying more attention to what they’re doing.”
What do you say to other citizens who feel they were a part of a similar situation?
“I would definitely say keep close tabs on your local government. Try to attend as many meetings as possible,” Reichenbach said. “There’s a lot of stuff that I know that I learned about my town unrelated to any turbines. You have to remain vigilant and pay attention to what’s going on.”
By Jennifer Fusco
20 March 2008
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