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December 05, 2016
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Government for the people

In this polarized society, in which the population seems to be pretty much evenly divided on practically every issue from the federal to the local level, it is immensely surprising to get a result as lopsided as that in the recent survey on natural gas drilling sent out in the Town of Callicoon. About two thirds of the respondents said they were opposed to drilling and fracking, about one third in favor. The margin is big enough that it is hard to ignore regardless of any imperfections in method with which the process might be charged. The fact that six or seven surveys were dropped into a “re-use” box at the post office, for instance, might have skewed a few votes, but could not possibly have accounted for the entire margin. Nor can the results be disparaged on account of the size of the sample. The number of surveys returned was 1,042, comparing quite favorably with the number of people who voted in the last election, which was about 1,200.

The results are important for a couple of reasons, one directly related to the Town of Callicoon, the other related to other local townships. Within Callicoon, the results mean that the government of the town has decided to take a tack clearly contrary to the wishes of the constituency it was elected to represent. What happened to “government for the people?” More broadly, the incident also refutes an argument that has been made not only in the Town of Callicoon, but in neighboring towns, whenever opponents of drilling request that some kind of referendum or poll be arranged: that the last elections themselves constituted a poll on natural gas drilling.

No, they obviously did not. And town officials who continue to refuse to listen to, or to try to learn more about, the actual wishes of their townspeople on a specific issue on which there is an outcry like this one, are flying in the face of democratic principle.

It is true that there were candidates running in the last election who made opposition to gas drilling central to their platform, and also that those candidates were defeated (although, in the Town of Delaware, challenger Stephan Lundgren wasn’t all that far off in the race for supervisor). But elections are decided on a wide range of factors, not just a single issue—and in the Town of Callicoon, at least, clearly not only on gas drilling.

As Delaware resident Liam Murphy has pointed out, once elected, public officials are bound to serve all their townspeople, not only the ones who voted for them. It’s true that sometimes a black-and-white choice must be made that will make some townspeople unhappy. In those instances, officials are entitled to vote in keeping with what they perceive to be the views held by the majority (or plurality, in the case of councilpersons) that elected them. But as this recent survey makes clear, they must also be mindful as to whether their opinion as to what the majority favors is in fact accurate. In cases where there is a massive public outcry, it behooves them to exercise due diligence to find out what the people they serve really want them to do.

It is against this background that the recent letter to Governor Cuomo signed by Town of Delaware Superintendent Ed Sykes, Delaware councilman Hal Roeder and Fremont Supervisor George Conklin, appealing for gas drilling to commence immediately, is such a disappointment. The Town of Delaware, though refusing to annul its recent resolution that in effect supports gas leasing, did agree to set up a commission that would supposedly, in the words of Sykes, attempt to get at “a lot of fact, not fiction” with regard to the advisability of gas drilling. But the letter to the governor says, “We have studied the facts and data.” Apparently, those who signed the letter already have all the facts they’re interested in knowing. So much for any attempt at genuine interaction with their constituency.

We think it would be interesting to see the Town of Delaware take a survey similar to the one just completed in Callicoon. We’re not sure that it would make any difference in what the town board does, any more than any changes are likely in Callicoon. But if not—well, the people who argue that elections are the most important polls of all do have one point. We would hope that any voters who see their representatives so signally fail to listen to their voices will remember that there is one poll public officials have to listen to, when election time comes around again next year.

[In a related vein, keep your eye on the dueling petitions in the Town of Cochecton. An anti-fracking petition has garnered 557 signatures, out of a town population of 1372. See story on page 2.]