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Report Finds Local Votes On Fracking Resulted In Apparent Conflicts Of Interest

  A reform group studied votes taken by local governments across the state on whether to allow hydro-fracking, and found numerous potential conflicts of interest that they say could have tainted the outcome of the votes.

The New York Public Interest Research Group studied 59 municipalities that have voted to permit hydro-fracking in the past few years, if New York State eventually approves the process.  They found numerous questionable activities, including local elected officials holding gas leases and town attorneys who also represented oil and gas companies.

NYPIRG’s Blair Horner, says under the state’s lax local lobbying laws, most of the behavior is allowed.

“Important decisions are being pushed down to the local level,” Horner said. “There are inadequate conflict of interest and disclosure safeguards that we think the public should have.”

The group’s Russ Haven says gaping holes in the state’s lobbying laws for local governments allow most of the activity to go on unchecked.  He says a loophole says lobbyists don’t have to disclose any lobbying they do in municipalities of 50,000 or fewer people.

“There’s really no reason for this,” Haven said.

The report calls the town of Sanford, in Broome County in the state’s Southern Tier, the “poster child” for the problem. Their research found that the town supervisor made $3 million dollars through gas leases. The then town clerk and a council member had leases with gas companies, and the town itself had cut a deal with a subsidiary of Exxon Mobil.

The study also found that in many case, the public was not given advance notice for many of the votes.

And, a number of the votes were on resolutions, not actual legislation. Resolutions are not subject to the state’s  lobbying laws, another loophole that the group says needs to be closed.

Some in state government, including at one point, Governor Cuomo, said that communities that have shown they want fracking, through votes by their local governments, should perhaps be allowed to have it.

Haven says based on the evidence in the report, it can’t be assumed that these communities held a fair vote.

“There’s a fog over what’s happened.” Haven said.

The report did find that in some cases, the process appeared to be completely fair, the public was notified,  and council members and outside attorneys gave both sides of the argument.

NYPIRG did not examine votes taken in municipalities that voted to ban fracking. The group is against the gas drilling process. But Horner and Haven say their main point is that citizens need to know more about lobbyists who influence their local governments, whether they are for or against fracking, or have other potential conflicts of interest that should be disclosed.

The group is calling on Governor Cuomo to lead the effort to modernize the state’s lobbying laws for local governments. A spokesman for the governor says the report will be reviewed.

Cuomo has said his administration will issue a long waited health report on fracking by the end of the year, and announce whether gas drilling will be permitted in New York.   

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.
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