More than a dozen residents, many of them wearing anti-Bear Ridge Solar T-shirts, sat in the audience during last week’s meeting of the Niagara County Legislature.
Members of the group, which is organizing in opposition of a plan by Cypress Renewables to build a solar farm in Cambria-Pendleton, did not sign up to address the legislature. One member told a lawmaker who asked that they just wanted to show up as a group to demonstrate their opposition to the project to county leaders.
Their mere presence highlights a larger question: What if any of them had actually wanted to address the full legislature to air their concerns about a project that they fear will have a negative impact on their community?
The answer, sadly, is that anyone — residents with opinions on a large-scale solar project that will have an impact on the county included — would have to wait until the end of any legislature meeting to have their say.
Equally sad is the understanding that, under public speaking rules established roughly a decade ago by the legislature’s Republican majority, their comments would not be reflected in the formal meeting record — and they would be made after the meeting was adjourned, at which point legislators and department heads are under no obligation to listen and can simply just get up and leave.
The county residents who attended the Aug. 6 meeting witnessed the defeat, by a 3-2 vote of the Administration Committee, of a proposal put forth by the legislature’s Democratic minority caucus to allow for a limited window of public speaking on non-agenda items earlier in legislative meetings, when the meetings are in session and any comments from members of the public would be part of the official meeting record.
While the amended version of the public speaking resolution presented by Minority Leader Dennis Virtuoso, D-Niagara Falls, received backing from fellow committee member and majority caucus leader Randy Bradt, three of Bradt’s Republican colleagues — David Godfrey, Williams Collins and Anthony Nemi — voted it down, preventing it from even getting to the floor for a vote by the full legislature.
After the meeting, Godfrey indicated that he felt the current public speaking set-up — the one that bars comment on non-agenda items until after meetings have been adjourned — was “fair” and better than what’s allowed by legislative bodies in some other counties in Western New York.
Asked how he thought residents who had something county-related to discuss that’s not on an agenda should attempt to do so moving forward, Godfrey suggested they simply call him or any other legislator, noting that contact information for all county lawmakers is readily available.
While it is true anyone with a concern about a county issue can and should call their legislators as needed, the vote by Godfrey, Collins and Nemi denies all county residents and taxpayers the ability to speak on non-agenda items to the county legislature as a whole.
How realistic is it for residents, many of whom have busy lives and work schedules, to contact 15 legislators to express an opinion, make a suggestion or air a concern?
The revised resolution on public speaking as presented by Virtuoso was not ideal, but it at least offered a window in which residents could address the legislature at a more reasonable hour. It also ensured that any comments for “the good of the county” would be reflected in the public record.
By failing to advance the measure for a vote by the full legislature, the Republican majority once again denied the public the ability to speak on the record about county matters of importance.
It was not at all “good” for the county.
The no votes cast by Godfrey, Collins and Nemi are an affront to the taxpayers whose tax dollars cover the cost of all county operations, the salaries of lawmakers and department heads included.
It’s yet another example of how the majority caucus tamps down input from those who are not tied into their inner circle or taking orders from the party bosses.
It’s also a disgrace.