You don’t have to be a Congressman to be a crooked shale shill. A town official will suffice. Just sign a lease with a fracker and vote according to your interest. Under the law, elected officials are supposed to recuse themselves when voting on an issue that they have an interest in. But not, according to this story, if you’re a crooked fracking politician voting on a Frack Us First Ordinance – that directly benefits you, to the detriment of your neighbors and the environment.
ALBANY – The circumstances surrounding several Southern Tier town boards and their position on hydraulic fracturing for natural gas make the case for stronger statewide ethics laws, according to a government watchdog organization.
The New York Public Interest Research Group on Tuesday released a report examining 59 resolutions passed by town boards opposing local bans on fracking, the controversial technique used to pull natural gas out of underground shale formations.
The group highlighted a number of “possible conflicts,” many of which had drawn interest from the state Attorney General’s office in late 2012, and pointed to a number of instances in which votes were rushed with little public input. Among the potential conflicts included landowners with gas leases serving on Broome County town boards in Colesville, Sanford and Windsor, all of which passed the resolution in 2012 asking, in effect to “get fracked first”.
Blair Horner, NYPIRG’s legislative director, said the state has to do more to tighten up ethics laws for local governments, and the report recommends bolstering the state Open Meeting Laws to encourage more governments to broadcast their meetings on the Internet. As it stands, companies who lobby governments representing fewer than 50,000 people aren’t required to detail their lobbying expenses—which NYPIRG wants to change.
“Reforms are needed to ensure that the integrity of that process, of those local decisions, at least meets standards that we would expect of the state level,” Horner said. “We think it’s critically important that these safeguards are put in place before decisions are made that will have a tremendous impact on the people who live in these local governments.”
The report comes as Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration prepares to decide whether to allow large-scale fracking in New York and after a state Court of Appeals decision that may require some towns to alter their zoning laws if they want to allow drilling.
Among the towns discussed in the report, Sanford is highlighted for its May 2012 vote in favor of the resolution, a template of which was authored by the pro-fracking Joint Landowners Coalition of New York. The town itself, Supervisor Dewey Decker and two council members all had gas leases with XTO Energy at the time of the vote.
Decker, who profited from a 2008 coalition deal with XTO that paid nearly $2,500 an acre, recused himself from the vote on the advice of the town’s attorney. But he previously cast a vote on a water-withdrawal application from XTO and had the resolution placed on the town’s agenda, according to the report.
He said Monday that he acted on the advice of the town’s attorney and took steps to prevent a conflict of interest.
“I did the things that the lawyer told me to do and I think I did the right things,” Decker said.
NYPIRG is opposed to fracking and has received $50,000 in each of the past five years from the Park Foundation, an Ithaca-based philanthropic fund that has helped fund some of New York’s most-active fracking opponents since 2009.
Horner said the foundation’s funding didn’t influence the report, and said it’s recommendations — tougher blanket ethics laws for all municipalities — should apply to both advocates and opponents of shale-gas drilling. Large-scale fracking has been on hold in New York since 2008, but Cuomo has said a decision on whether it should proceed is expected by year’s end.
The potential for conflict of interest is greater on the side of drilling proponents, Horner said, which is in part why the report focused on pro-fracking resolutions and not bans or moratoriums passed by local governments.
“We wanted to narrowly focus because we don’t have the resources to check (every resolution or ban),” Horner said. “Secondly, the potential conflict of interest that we see on money to be made, we don’t know of anybody that’s funding people where they could make a potential windfall on their own property if you don’t have fracking.”
Local shale shyster, Scott Kurkoski, an attorney for the Joint Landowners Coalition, accused NYPIRG of using open-government laws as a “sword” to attack fracking rather than a “shield” to protect the public’s interests. The Community Environmental Defense Council, which offered pro bono advice and counsel to a number of local governments that banned fracking through zoning laws, also receives funding from the Park Foundation.
“They are specifically trying to knock out people who disagree with their point of view,” Kurkoski said of NYPIRG. “If you believe what they say on these issues, then only people who live in apartments would be able to vote on these issues. That’s simply not the way it works in government.”
The resolution votes in Sanford, Colesville and Windsor all were the subject of aninquiry by Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s office in 2012. But it’s unknown whether Schneiderman’s interest extended beyond a letter requesting information.
A spokesman for Schneiderman declined comment Tuesday.
Isaac Silberman-Gorn, a Binghamton-based organizer with Citizen Action of New York, said his group has seen how local boards can be “plagued by conflicts of interest and susceptible to big oil and gas industry influence.”
“NYPIRG’s report shows that local municipalities in the Southern Tier cannot be counted on to protect the health, well-being, and best interests of all residents when it comes to fracking,” he said in a statement.