What is Case Study?
At New York schools of public administration the case study is a widely used learning tool. First the actions of public officials to be studied are described. Next, comes a search for the most likely explanations for why the public officials acted one way and not another. Finally, public management steps are explored to avoid unwanted public decisions and ensure more desirable decisions in the future.
This case study looks at how local laws and local public actions are linked, or not. Specifically, the case evaluates the manner in which the Town of Colden planning board circumvented two long-standing administrative and procedural laws on the books (also known as the Town Code) in the Town of Colden.
Perhaps the most important principle of American government is the rule-of-law. A study of history shows that when public officials are free to make up their own rules of conduct, tyranny is the inevitable result.
Laws passed by elected legislatures establish the rules — the powers and duties of public officials — including town legislatures in small, rural New York communities. Public officials are legally bound to obey these laws since — as we are reminded by the recent arrest of the former Assembly Leader, Sheldon Silver and what the Buffalo News calls the “Albany Political Cesspool,” — they are not above the law.
Town Planning Board
The central responsibility of Colden’s planning board — the central reason it exists — is to ensure the town develops in accord with the town’s official master land use plan. Colden’s zoning ordinance was adopted by the town to legally implement its master plan and the town’s zoning ordinance must, according to legal standards, be “harmonious” with the plan.
Town planning board members fail to fulfil their responsibilities to the people of Colden if they are technically ill-prepared to do the job or if they fail to follow the state and local town administrative and procedural laws regulating the duties of the planning board and its members.
Chapter 108, Zoning, Article XXV, Amendments, Section 130B, spells out how the Colden planning board is to process proposed amendments to the town’s zoning ordinance. Upon receipt of a proposed zoning amendment from the town board, this law directs the planning board to provide the town board with, “…an advisory report…[and] In reporting, the Town Planning Board shall fully state its reasons for recommending or opposing the adoption of such proposed amendment and…shall state whether such amendment is in harmony with a master or comprehensive plan for land use in the town.”
Chapter 11, Ethics, Section 11-4.E. Both New York State’s General Municipal Law and this Colden local law titled, “Disclosure of Interest in Legislation”, require that when planning board members, and other town officials, are reviewing a proposed zoning law amendment or a new law that will impact an industry – such as an amendment to prohibit high volume hydraulic fracturing (HVHF) for natural gas in the town – each board member must, “…publicly disclose on the official record the nature and extent of any direct or indirect financial or other private interest he has in such legislation.”
These laws are unambiguous. They were passed to set high standards of performance for members of the Town of Colden planning board. The first law ensures that the advice given by the planning board to the town board is technically sound and conforms to the goals, plans and policies found in the town’s master land use plan.
The second law protects the citizens of Colden by publicly exposing possible conflicts of interest among members of the planning board and acknowledges the right of town citizens to know whether or not decisions made by their town officials are being made for the benefit of the community or whether they are being made for the private benefit of elected and appointed town officials.
Sequence of Events
Hydrofracking Committee Report. Colden’s town board created the Hydrofracking Committee on August 27, 2012 and I served as the chairperson. The committee’s final report, submitted to the Town Board on April 11, 2013 recommended amending the town’s zoning ordinance to prohibit HVHF for natural gas in Colden. On May 13, 2013, the Town Board referred the Hydrofracking Committee report, including its proposed zoning amendment to prohibit HVHF, to the Colden Planning Board for its review.
Town Board’s Draft Local Law. On or about January 13, 2015 the Colden Town Board referred to the planning board a draft local law prepared by the town’s attorney amending the town’s zoning ordinance to prohibit HVHF for natural gas in the town.
Violation of the Zoning Amendment Process. With regard to both the Hydrofracking Committee’s proposed zoning ordinance amendment, referred to the planning board by the town board in May 2013 and the draft law to amend the zoning ordinance referred to the planning board from the town board in January 2015, the Colden Planning Board has not rendered the advisory report called for in Chapter 108, Zoning, Section 130B of the Colden Local Law.
Violation of Conflict of Interest Laws. A review of Colden town hall records on February 27, 2015 indicated that since receiving a proposed amendment to the town’s zoning ordinance in May 2013 and again when it received a draft law to amend the town’s zoning ordinance in January 2015, planning board members have failed to comply with the conflict of interest disclosure requirements mandated by New York law and Colden local Law Chapter 11, Ethics, Section 11-4.E.
All the while, New York Department of Environmental Conservation records show that at least two planning board members have natural gas wells operating on their property.
Compliance with Disclosure Laws. When reviewing the Hydrofracking Committee report, members of both the Colden Environmental Board and members of the Colden Hydrofracking Committee did file in the town clerk’s office written disclosure statements called for in the New York law and Colden local Law Chapter 11, Ethics, Section 11-4.E.
Private Meeting with Gas Association. On July 1, 2014, the Colden Planning Board held a private, not publicly announced, meeting with officials of the Independent Oil and Gas Association of New York in Hamburg, NY – an apparent violation of New York’s Open Meetings Law.
Enforcement Failure. Chapter 28-3 B of the Colden town law states that the duties of the town’s Enforcement Officer include, “to enforce all rules, regulations, ordinances and local laws of the Town of Colden.”
To date, the Colden Code Enforcement Office has, to my knowledge, taken no action to enforce either the conflict of interest disclosure requirements of Chapter 11, Ethics, Section 11.4.E or the planning board advisory report requirements contained in Chapter 108, Zoning, 108-130 B.
Town Board Oversight Failure. To date, to my knowledge, members of the Colden town board, as the governing body of the town, has failed since May 2013 to perform its duty to ensure that the performance of the planning board, the planning board members and the code enforcement officer comply with New York State and Colden Local Laws.
According to the Town Law Manual published by the Association of Towns of the State of New York, “An ordinance is only as good as the subsequent effort that goes into its enforcement. There is no sense in going to all the trouble, work and expense involved in drafting and adopting a good ordinance if the town board does not see to it that the ordinance is enforced.”
In addition, members of the town board have failed, since May 2013 – when the town board received the Hydrofracking Committee report recommending prohibiting HVHF drilling in Colden — to file required disclosure statements indicating their interests in the oil and gas industry. The laws, after all, apply equally to all town officials.
Next Step (Part II)
Describing public events is one thing. Explaining why these events unfolded as they did is a lot more complicated. In addition, observers of the same event can have very different explanations of what happened and why.
With your help, let’s prepare a list of all possible explanations for the above events and actions of public officials in the Town of Colden.
Submitted by: Ron Fraser, administrator of the Small Town Civics website and a citizen of the Town of Colden