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Judge orders planning board to attend meeting training

COOPERSTOWN – Members of the Richfield Town Planning Board are only the third group of public officials in the state who have been required by court order to get training in their obligations under the Open Meeting Law, an official who oversees the training program said Wednesday.

“The purpose of the training is simply to educate and to encourage compliance,” said Robert J. Freeman, the director of the State Committee on Open Government.

State Supreme Court Judge Donald Cerio, in a case involving a wind farm project, nullified the special-use permit granted by the planning board to the developer because he said it was inappropriate to switch the venue for a November meeting to a nearby church after citizens crowded into town offices.

Cerio also found that the planning board members should have realized large numbers of citizens would be attending and made arrangements for a suitable location to accommodate them. They also should have given advance public notice of the meeting location, he said.

David Merzig, the attorney for the Planning Board, said several parties are eligible to appeal the judge’s decision, including the wind farm developer, the citizens who oppose it and the planning board. Whether an appeal will emerge is not yet known, he said.

The mixed-bag ruling also upheld the board’s decision to allow the wind farm project to move forward without an evaluation under the state Environmental Quality Review Act, and held that windmills were not banned by town land-use laws.

“No matter what happens, the Planning Board will do the training,” that was ordered by Cerio, Merzig said.

Freeman said the Legislature gave courts the authority to order training on the Open Meeting Law after former Gov. David Paterson vetoed a previous measure that would have allowed fines. His objection was that taxpayers would have ended up footing the bill for the mistakes of government officials, Freeman said.

Cynthia Andela, one of the Richfield planning board members, said it was too early to say what will become of the wind farm project, but if the developer again asks for the permit, it would be considered again.

“If we need some training in open meetings, that’s fine,” she said.

Freeman said the training, which has not yet been scheduled, will be held in Richfield and will be open to the public.