The Town of Reading’s elected officials have failed a real-world civics test three times in less than a month.
They locked the public out of the Reading Town Hall — a town hall paid for, maintained and heated with taxpayers’ dollars — on Dec. 17, on Jan. 7, and then again Tuesday, each time leaving as many as 50 people outside in bitter winter cold.
On Jan. 7 and Tuesday, the wind chill dropped the effective temperature to well below zero.
While people shivered outside, a judge in a toasty-warm courtroom (with very limited seating) heard cases against people facing trespassing charges for blocking the gates at the Crestwood salt-cavern gas storage site on Route 14.
But the spacious (and also well-heated) town hall room was kept vacant, except for two Schuyler County Sheriff’s Deputies, charged with keeping the people outside from entering the building while also guarding the courtroom.
Until the weather turned really cold in December, the town hall meeting space outside the courtroom was open to these same citizens, many of whom were either waiting to go into the court themselves or there to support arrestees.
But according to one town official, board members got their knickers in a twist when someone accidentally stepped on some decorative plants outside.
Town Supervisor Marvin Switzer said the town board told him it won’t stand for people damaging “the shrubbery” and ordered the lockdown of the hall.
How the town’s shrubbery is protected by locking citizens out of a public building in the middle of winter is a tangle of such illogic it seems impossible to unravel. Impossible unless the town board’s deliberate, mean-spirited action has its real roots in board members’ pique at the Crestwood protesters.
Since the massive natural gas and liquid propane gas storage project was first proposed, the Town of Readinghas behaved as if persons unwilling to join them as boosters of salt-cavern gas-storage are annoyances, not concerned citizens with a differing opinion.
Early in the debate several years ago, the town planning board suspended all public comments about gas storage. Other topics were welcome for comment, for questions or to engage the planners in discussion. But any utterance mentioning gas storage would rile the chairman to angrily demand silence.
That Reading slap at the free speech clause of First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution has been eclipsed with this freeze-the-public maneuver. It’s a not-very-subtle attempt to thwart the public’s constitutional right to assemble.
In addition to locking people out on Dec. 17, no parking signs were posted on the roads around the town hall, ostensibly for safety reasons. More likely they were to discourage people from attending court or a peaceful anti-gas storage rally because the signs haven’t appeared in Reading for other recent events.
In the wake of these disgraceful incidents, the members of the Reading Town Board need to brush up on their civic responsibilities as elected representatives whose duty is to serve the public, not just those people they choose to favor based on politics.
Differences of opinion about the safety and suitability of the Houston-based company’s natural gas and proposed LPG storage facility are part of the healthy give and take of democracy.
Had the Schuyler County Legislature done its civic duty four years ago and led discussions and debate about the project, the nearly 200 people arrested for trespassing might not be visiting the Reading Court at all.
But it didn’t and so now it’s time for the Town of Reading to reread (or read for the first time) the pertinent sections of the U.S. Constitution and then adjust its civic priorities.
Priority should be given to the health and welfare of citizens and for the lawful right of citizens to assemble, not to protect ornamental shrubbery.
Fitzgerald worked for six newspapers as a writer and editor as well as a correspondent for several news services. He lives in Valois and Watkins Glen with his wife. They are owner/operators of a publishing enterprise called *subject2change Media. His “Write On” column appears Fridays. He can be contacted atMichael.Fitzgeraldfltcolumnist@gmail.com.