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Town of Oyster Bay ordered to redraft new meeting law

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A federal court has issued a temporary restraining order against the Town of Oyster Bay’s new local meeting law, which allows for the arrest and filing of criminal charges against anyone who disrupts a Town Board meeting. Kevin McKenna, of Syosset, who objected to the law, filed suit against the town and Town Supervisor Joseph Saladino, and on Monday, U.S. District Judge Gary Brown issued the restraining order.

Brown said the town could rewrite the law and present it at a court conference on Dec. 2, when the judge  will determine whether the rewritten law is constitutional. If Brown deems it unconstitutional, or if McKenna’s lawyer, Jonathan Clarke, objects to it, a hearing will be set for a few days later. If both Brown and Clarke agree at the conference that the rewritten law is constitutional, there will be no hearing.

“I’m not sure if the town will be given another chance to rewrite the law if either the judge or I think the one presented at the conference is unconstitutional,” Clarke said. “It will be up to Judge Brown.”

If there is a hearing, the judge would again rule on whether the law is constitutional. If he deemed that it was, the Town Board would vote on it  on Dec. 8.

“I think the town doesn’t want a hearing,” said Clarke, of the Farmingdale firm Clarke & Fellows. “We couldn’t have gotten a better result from Judge Brown.”

McKenna and others frequently speak publicly at Town Board meetings, where the exchanges can sometimes become heated. In an email referring to Tuesday’s Town Board meeting, Mc-Kenna wrote, “I was calm, professional and asked pointed questions on the action calendar. None of my questions were answered and to boot Saladino told the public the prior speaker [McKenna] is not credible.”

When Saladino was asked previously if the reason for the law’s creation was unruly behavior, he said, “Yes,” adding, “A select few individuals come to the meeting every time who have a political agenda. The public doesn’t want this. We have residents, both children and adults, who come to the meeting to be honored. We want them to feel comfortable.”

It would be up to police to arrest anyone who was ejected from a meeting, Saladino said, and up to the district attorney to charge the person. In a recent Newsday story, District Attorney Madeline Singas, however, expressed doubt that charges would lead to prosecution.

The law also stated that photography and videography would be allowed at Town Board meetings, so long as it was “done in a manner that does not interfere with the meeting.” The supervisor can decide if equipment is too large, or if someone taking photographs or videos is too close to a speaker or the board.

Saladino emphatically said the law was not targeting journalists. There have been several meetings, he said, at which certain individuals have walked over to the lectern while a resident is speaking and put a camera close to the person’s face as a form of intimidation. 

The Press Club of Long Island immediately voiced its disapproval of  the law when it was first enacted, calling it a violation of First Amendment rights.

Upon hearing of the court’s decision, Brendan O’Reilly, PCLI’s vice president, said they were “pleased that the court is blocking the enforcement of Resolution 567-2020, which has a chilling effect on the First Amendment. Journalists covering and recording public meetings should never have to choose between doing their jobs effectively and risking 15 days in jail.

Under New York State Open Meetings Law, it is the duty of the Town Board to accommodate large cameras, broadcast equipment and lighting so journalists can broadcast and publish what occurs at public meetings. The town supervisor may not override Open Meetings Law, despite what this resolution states.”

Councilman Lou Imbroto referred to the law as the “rules of decorum.” He said it was written to protect the First Amendment rights of residents.

But PCLI said the new meeting rules violated not only the Freedom of the Press but also the public’s right to know. “This resolution is misguided and unnecessary — existing rules and laws enable the Town Board to eject a disruptive person from a meeting,” O’Reilly said. “The Town Board should rescind the new rules entirely.”

Saladino sees Brown’s directive as positive. “Rather than issue a formal order or decision, the judge provided two weeks for the town to slightly alter verbiage,” Saladino said in a statement, “while maintaining the law’s same intent, which is to protect the freedom of speech for all attendees while maintaining a safe environment free of profanity, sexual gestures and unruly behavior.”

McKenna had complained in an Nov. 18 email that Saladino referred to his lawsuit as “frivolous” during Tuesday’s meeting. Saladino did so again in his statement regarding Brown’s decision. “The town will certainly prevail against this frivolous lawsuit,” Saladino said, “which wastes taxpayer money in a poor attempt to gain media attention, while hampering good government.”