Friday, February 17, 2012

Montrose officials try to curtail public speech at meetings

Tensions rose at a Montrose Borough Council meeting Tuesday when
council members voted to limit public comments and refused interviews.
Add another fracture line in Susquehanna County, Pa, the epicenter of the shale gas controversy.

As reported in a previous post, the remote countryside, 30 minutes south of New York state’s border with Pennsylvania, continues to be a decisive front in a landmark battle over the role of hydraulic fracturing in the energy future of the United States. The conflict began in Dimock in 2009, when a group of residents attempted to hold Cabot Oil and Gas accountable for pollution of residential water wells as the company began drilling into the Marcellus Shale. Eventually the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection sided with the residents, and in late 2010 the agency ordered Cabot to build a pipeline to deliver fresh water to affected homes around the Carter Road area. With this, a group called Enough Already organized against the DEP and the pipeline plan. Enough Already, representing residents and businesses dependent on incomes from drilling, sided with Cabot. They argued that complaints about water problems were self-serving and bad for business. After Tom Corbett won the gubernatorial election, the DEP changed its position and sided with Cabot. The pipeline proposal was rejected, and drilling continued. Finally, officials at the federal EPA uncovered evidence suggesting the water problem could extend far beyond the homes experiencing problems on Carter Road; and with that the federal agency took over the investigation from the DEP earlier this year.

Now, in addition to EPA versus the DEP, Cabot versus residents, and neighbors versus neighbors, a fight has broken out between local elected officials and the Fourth Estate. The unfolding events in the Cabot gas field -- including the Montrose Borough just north of Dimock -- have drawn attention of national news outlets off and on, but the area is geographically too remote for daily coverage by national outlets. Regional media, however, have been making the trip to attend public meetings to chronicle the issues dividing the community. Some of the most committed coverage has come from PaHomepage, including WBRE-TV and WYOU -TV, serving Northeastern and Central Pennsylvania, the Scranton Times Tribune, and Sue Havenrich, a journalist and author in upstate New York who writes The Marcellus Effect blog.

Montrose Borough Council members are apparently uncomfortable with this coverage, aided by cameras and tape recorders as allowed by law. On February 8, after citizen reporter Vera Scoggins came to a council meeting with a video recorder, all the council members abruptly got up and left, refusing to answer questions from the press or anybody else in attendance. On Tuesday, things got more bizarre. Without opportunity for public comment, as required by law, the council passed a “code of conduct measure to restrict comments and the use of cameras and recording devices during meetings. 

Apparently the role of a free press in government affairs is not something these public officials are comfortable with. Council President Tom LaMont refused to answer questions, and justified his position by stating he hasn’t talked to reporters, as a matter of policy, for the 15 years he has been elected. Unaccustomed to the spotlight, and possibly unfamiliar with the notion of a country built on the foundation of open government, where elected are held accountable by the public and a free media, LaMont and other council members are attemptimg to shut down the public debate on drilling, water contamination and other issues that have been the source of unwelcome dissonance at their meetings.

When PaHompage reporter Joe Holden stood outside the meeting hall with a microphone and camera Tuesday in an attempt to get council members to elaborate on their policy, he reported he was pushed and shoved from behind by councilmen Sean Granahan and Craig Reimel -- a claim supported by shaky footage of the incident. “It raises the hair on my neck,” Holden – a 10 year veteran of broadcast journalism -  told me this week. “It raises red flags when somebody puts their hands on a reporter or member of the public who is attending a public meeting to pay attention to the process.“

While the station maintains a neutral position on the hydraulic fracturing issue, it will clearly embrace the fight to uphold Pennsylvania’s open government laws and free speech in general. “There should be no gray area here with the First Amendment,” Holden said. “We are going to stand up to our rights to take this on. We will push our First Amendment rights, and see how far they want to push back.

It's hard to know what council members think, because they refuse to comment. If the intention of the council is to try to control the spin of the monumental fracking controversy, they are going about it the wrong way. On principal, the council’s strategy – to attempt to shut down dissenting voices – is illegal and an affront to basic constitutional freedoms. From a public relations standpoint, it simply builds credibility of critics who claim elected officials in Pennsylvania are too often covering for the gas industry. Whether that claim is true of not, the council’s handling of the controversy simply reinforces public suspicion that institutional cronyism and self-serving interests flourish in the absence of public discussion and out of the media’s reach.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for posting this, Tom. I was aghast at the council's behavior at their Feb 6th meeting; too bad they don't understand what open public meetings are about and the concept of freedom of the press.
    ~Sue Heavenrich