Montgomery town residents are fighting back after some of them were prohibited from speaking at the public meeting with the Montgomery Village board and Medline representatives on June 4.
During the meeting, Village of Montgomery Mayor Stephen Brescia stated only village residents could speak. When town resident Susan Cockburn tried to speak, Brescia directed village police to escort her out. Police prohibited her from speaking, but did not remove her from the meeting room.
Crawford town resident Jess Gocke was escorted out when she tried to speak but was allowed back into the meeting hall.
Village and town residents have contracted Michael Sussman, Esq, a prominent civil rights lawyer located in Goshen. Cockburn said Sussman believes residents’ constitutional rights have been egregiously violated. Sussman, who has scheduled a press conference for Wednesday afternoon, could not be reached for comment but in a press release said shutting people up at public meetings is “classic viewpoint discrimination” forbidden by the First Amendment.
“This is not America,” Sussman said in a prepared statement. “This is not the country we all love. We must and we will fight back!”
The meeting agenda on the village's website for the public meeting includes a question and answer session for village residents. The agenda also includes a public portion for questions, which limits speaking to three minutes but has no other limitations based on residence.
While the New York State open meetings law is silent on who is allowed to speak at public meetings, the law does state the public must be allowed to attend. According to advisory opinions of the New York State Committee on Open Government, a government body is allowed to set rules governing public speaking, but those rules must be reasonable and treat everyone equally.
Robert Freeman, Executive Director for the New York State Committee on Open Government, said he would not consider Brescia’s decision to limit public speaking to only village residents reasonable.
“I don’t think his point of view would be found reasonable by a court of law,” Freeman said.
The committee’s opinion is that governing bodies cannot preclude someone from speaking based on their residence or require those in attendance to identify themselves due to privacy issues. Freeman said it is not advisable to restrict who can speak based on residence because those that don’t live in the municipality might still have a business in it and therefore a stake in the community.
Brescia, who holds two elected positions, is also Chairman of the Orange County Legislature and secretary of the Orange County Industrial Development Agency.
He did not return calls for comment as of Tuesday afternoon.